A collective of senior Buddhist abbots and influential monks

Human Rights Watch on Burma’s new “Buddhist women can’t marry out” bill.

Burma’s President Thein Sein should refuse to sign into law the discriminatory interfaith marriage bill passed by parliament on July 7, 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill targets Buddhist women who marry – or seek to marry – non-Buddhist men and introduces vaguely defined acts against Buddhism as grounds for divorce, forfeiture of custody and matrimonial property, and potential criminal penalties.

The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law was passed by a vote of 524 to 44, with 8 abstentions, by Burma’s two houses of parliament sitting in a joint session. The final version of the bill has not been made public. The legislation now goes to the president for his signature.

“The Special Marriage Law is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages with absurd claims of helping Buddhist women,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “It’s the latest potential trigger for anti-Muslim violence pushed by religious extremists, and the president shouldn’t sign it.”

Besides being discriminatory, the bill violates internationally protected rights to privacy, religious belief, and equal protection of the law. It “only concerns Myanmar Buddhist women and their non-Buddhist husbands,” and applies to all Burmese Buddhist women age 18 or over. The law permits the township (district level) registrar to publicly display a couple’s application for marriage for 14 days, and permits any objections to the marriage to be taken to local court. The law places further discriminatory restrictions on women under age 20, who are required to obtain consent from their parents or legal guardian to marry a non-Buddhist.

So any bozo could come along and have “objections” to your marriage and take them to a local court!

The law also requires a non-Buddhist husband to respect the free practice of his spouse’s Buddhist religion, including displaying Buddhist imagery and statues, and engaging in Buddhist ceremonies. He must refrain from “committing deliberate and malicious acts, such as writing, or speaking, or behaving or gesturing with intent to outrage feelings of Buddhists.” Violations of these provisions are grounds for divorce, and in such a case the non-Buddhist husband would be forced to give up his share of jointly owned property, owe his wife compensation, and be denied custody of the children.

Talk about micro-managing things that are none of the state’s business…

The Special Marriage Law is part of a package of four so-called Race and Religion Protection Laws urged on Burma’s lawmakers by the increasingly powerful and influential Association of the Protection of Race and Religion, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. Ma Ba Tha is a nationwide collective of senior Buddhist abbots and influential monks, many of whom frequently denounce Burma’s Muslim minorities, especially stateless Rohingya Muslims. Ma Ba Tha first proposed a draft marriage bill in 2013. The government released a version in late 2014 that was drafted by the Supreme Court, but it had only minor changes from the original Ma Ba Tha draft.

Yes we’re familiar with organizations of male clerics that creep around the landscape policing everything anyone does. They make life hell.

“The parliament and president shouldn’t pander to extremists but rather reject any proposed law that will further divide Burma’s communities,” Robertson said. “As the November 8 national election looms, enacting laws that embolden those who thrive on discrimination and communal violence is a dangerous development.”

It’s a damn nightmare.


  1. Scr... Archivist says

    LykeX @2,

    It actually makes sense for a celibate priesthood to police other people’s marriage and sexuality if they cannot (officially) have children of their own.

    Religion is inculcated in children by their parents, usually, so it seems that the Association of the Protection of Race and Religion wants to make sure that Burmese children only hear about Buddhism. And if the couple divorce, the Muslim father cannot get custody of the children, ensuring that they will be raised Buddhist. The Ma Ba Tha apparently don’t want to lose any market share to the 4% of the country that are Muslims, or perhaps to the other 4% who are Christians. As in the United States, a religion that only has 89% of the population in its thrall clearly isn’t popular enough already.

    And while I don’t know too much about the inter-religious conflict in Burma, I find the property rules in this law interesting. It seems to put husbands at risk of losing some property if an amorphous mass of unnamed third parties feel insulted by someone not worshiping correctly, which of course is something that people from enemy religions do by definition. This makes it easier to transfer material resources from Muslims to Buddhists, which can’t be bad if one makes their living by being a busybody Buddhist monk.

    Finally, I have to wonder if there is such a thing as the Burmese race. Also, since Ma Ba Tha was founded in Mandalay, I wonder if the word “Mandalay” is the Burmese translation of “Nürnberg”.

  2. says

    So a buddhist in Burma comes up to a hot dog vendor and says “Make me one with everything.” And the hot dog vendor laughs and the buddhist presses charges and the police sieze the hot dog stand and convict the vendor of causing spiritual outrage. In court, the judge asks the hot dog vendor whether he will change his ways and the hot dog vendor replies, “This is not some fucking joke.”

  3. says

    What is it with celibates and their obsession with other people’s marriages?

    It makes sense for religions to control sex and food because, since they are techniques for political control, they are oriented toward controlling those who there isn’t much other leverage on! The rich and powerful have a different relationship with religion: patronage and partnership. The religious cultists tell the poor and disempowered about the great reward that awaits them in the beyond if they are good servants and don’t do anything sensible like rise up and take from the takers. In order to socialize the poor and disempowered into a culture of obedience they are threatened with bad afterlife (“look, you might be reincarnated as a slug or a patent attorney or Donald Trump’s hairpiece!”) and taught to jump when the priests say “frog” Since all the poor and disempowered have is what they eat (and not much of it at that) religion controls their food. “Hey buddha boy, the fact that you can only afford rice makes you extra holy! because then you’re a vegetarian and you don’t have to eat smoked duck like our benighted monarch.” Since sex is pleasurable and free and does not serve the needs of wealth and power except for producing more servants, sex is controlled as well.

    For any given thing that religion does, all you need to do to decode it is to ask yourself “how does this (whatever) serve power and the establishment’s interests?” The long-term alliance between the crown and the crozier (or the crown and the saffron robe, in this case) has evolved to the point where anything that the religions do that might annoy power has been pretty thoroughly beaten down. The division in the “divide, and conquer” is complete.

  4. says

    Erica @ 3 – “Myanmar” was the choice of the military dictators; I don’t see any particular reason to endorse their choice. It’s the same with Bombay v Mumbai – the latter is the preference of the reactionary Hinduist nationalists. Not all change is progressive.

  5. anat says

    OK now I have a question regarding the ‘objection to marriage’. I am familiar with that arrangement from Israel – if you are a different-sex (nominally?) Jewish couple and you seek marriage via the rabbinate (as opposed to civil marriage abroad or common-law marriage with a domestic union agreement) your information gets published in 3 newspapers of general audience, ostensibly so that if anyone thinks you shouldn’t be rabbinically married they can raise their objections. This is supposed to protect people against bigamy (important!) but also from sins such as interfaith marriage or marriage with a ‘mamzer’ (the worst of illegitimacy, the irrepairable evil of being born of adultery or incest).

    This somewhat parallels the custom I see in movies showing Christian weddings (haven’t been to many of those in real life, sorry) where the officiating clergyperson asks if there is anyone present who has an objection to the union.

    So after this background – in a civil marriage, what protects people from marrying someone who is, unbeknownst to them already married to someone else?

  6. says

    in a civil marriage, what protects people from marrying someone who is, unbeknownst to them already married to someone else?

    Nothing. It happens a lot. There are loads of stories where someone finds out that their travelling saleshusband has 3 families in 3 cities. It’s called “bigamy” and it’s illegal but presumably – until recently – states were mostly concerned with making sure that (SHHH!) people didn’t marry the same gender.

    If you’re in the US some states check when they issue the marriage license, but usually it’s checking against DMV records or something like that, I don’t believe there is any state that keeps a “who is married to whom?” database.

    I would bet that Utah maybe checks. I don’t know what the rules are for polygamous marriages from, say, someone in Saudi Arabia, who wants to bring all his wives to the US. The suppression of polygamy in Utah was not really about polygamy as much as it was anti-mormon. After all, there are lots of “traditional” polygamous marriages in tebabble.

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