YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar's parliament is "playing with fire" by passing a bill regulating the right of women from the country's Buddhist majority to marry men from outside their religion, an international human rights group said Wednesday.
Phil Robertson of New York-based Human Rights Watch linked the bill to a campaign by extremist Buddhist groups that have incited anti-Muslim hatred. Religious tensions have led to deadly violence since 2012, especially against Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar, who have felt compelled to flee abroad, leading to a regional refugee crisis.
The Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Bill passed Tuesday is one of four known as the Protection of Race and Religion Laws, which have been criticized as discriminatory by rights groups. It mandates that Buddhist women register their intent to marry outside their faith, and allows them to be stopped if there are objections.
President Thein Sein has 14 days from when the bill was passed to sign it or return it with suggested changes.
"It's shocking that Burma's parliament has passed yet another incredibly dangerous law, this time legislating clearly discriminatory provisions targeting the rights of religious minority men and Buddhist women to marry who they wish without interference," said Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division. Burma is the old name for Myanmar, sometimes used by critics of its military-backed government.
He suggested that the leaders of the Buddhist nationalist groups that pushed for the laws "be investigated and prosecuted for hate speech rather than feted in the halls of parliament."
Robertson said in an email that by initiating and passing such laws, "the government and ruling party lawmakers are playing with fire." He said that if sectarian violence flares again like it did in 2012, "then these legislators will have blood on their hands."
Also among the laws is the Population Control Health Care Bill, which became law in May and calls for a 36-month interval for women between child births, ostensibly to keep poor families from becoming overstretched financially. It is vague about penalties, raising fears that they could include coerced contraception, forced sterilization or abortion.
The two bills still pending are the Religious Conversion Bill, which forces people seeking to convert to another religion to get the approval of an official local "Registration Board," and the Monogamy Bill, whose articles include criminalizing extramarital relations.
The Rohingya Muslims already face many official restrictions because most have not been granted Myanmar citizenship, the U.S. State Department has noted.
"Muslims, including the Rohingya in Rakhine State, faced severe discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity, and increasingly, their religion," said the department's annual report on human rights, issued last month. "Most Rohingya faced severe restrictions on their ability to travel, avail themselves of health-care services, engage in economic activity, obtain an education, and register births, deaths, and marriages."