RANGOON —A powerful group of Buddhist nationalist lobbyists has planned nationwide rallies in support of a controversial bill that some say would effectively outlaw interfaith marriage in Burma. Organizers said that they are demanding immediate passage of the Interfaith Marriage Bill, which they first proposed in 2013.
The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, locally referred to as Ma Ba Tha, said that a successful gathering of about 500 supporters last Saturday in Rangoon would be followed by a similar event in Mandalay “very soon.”
Mandalay-based monk U Wirathu, a member of the Ma Ba Tha and leading proponent of the anti-Muslim 969 movement, told The Irrawaddy that he expectedto draw about 1,000 supporters at the next round of demonstrations.
He said that the legislation has stagnated in Parliament, and the Ma Ba Tha wishes to see decisive action on the bill, which would enact conversion requirements for interfaith couples wishing to marry. The bill has been heavily criticized by civil society and international observers alike for enacting discriminatory boundaries that could create disadvantages for minority faiths and women.
“Parliament has been silent on this bill, and we want to put some pressure on the government and the Parliament to approve it immediately,” said Wirathu, speaking to The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
“Ideally, this bill would be passed by 2015, before there are changes in the government. If it is delayed, the future of our Buddhist women will suffer under threat of forced conversion,” he added, referring to a common belief among Burma’s Buddhist community that women are routinely being coerced to join Muslim families.
This belief has been broadly denounced by women’s rights groups, who claim that the law creates unnecessary restrictions for women who are capable of choosing their own partners.
“If people prefer that others not marry outside their faith, religious leaders can educate people about their options. But this law is unnecessary,” said HtarHtar, founder of the Rangoon-based advocacy group Akhaya Women’s Network. HtarHtar added that she does not support the legislation and believes that it would ultimately do more harm than good.
“We also want to request that the president not enact this law, because it will only create problems and misunderstandings between people with different beliefs,” she said. “We are trying to build peace, stability and democracy in this country.”
The draft legislation would require Buddhist women to receive permission from parents and authorities before marrying a man of another faith, who would then be forced to convert to Buddhism. It is part of a package of four bills drafted by the Ma Ba Thaon the premise of preserving racial and religious norms. The other three bills would ban polygamy, enact population control measures and restrict religious conversion.
Ma Ba Tha proposed the package in mid-2013, and a drafting committee was created to rewrite the bills and push them through Parliament.The legislation was submitted to lawmakers earlier this year with assistance from a member of the National Democratic Force, but it is still unclear when it will come up for a vote.
“We’ve waited several months for the result,” said Dama Sakka U MaungMaung, a chairperson of the Htayrawada Buddhism Network.
“We want these bills to be passed as soon as possible. As for those who oppose this [marriage] bill, we urge them to read it carefully and not just oppose it for political gain,” he added.
The draft legislation has not officially been made public, which could pose some difficulties for those wishing to read it.The Irrawaddy has previously reported that several outspoken members of Burma’s civil society have been physically threatened or otherwise harassed for their opposition to the legislation.