RANGOON — Nearly 2.5 million people have signed a petition in support of a proposed law that would restrict marriage in Burma between Buddhists and Muslims, according to an ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk leading the campaign.
U Wirathu, a monk who has risen to prominence by spreading anti-Muslim rhetoric in Buddhist-majority Burma, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the signatures would be sent to Parliament along with the proposed law, which aims to restrict interfaith marriages between Buddhist women and men of other religions.
Rights activists have opposed the proposal, which emerged last month at a major conference of Buddhist monks in Rangoon. If passed, the law would force Buddhist women to get permission from their parents and local government officials before marrying a man from any other faith. A non-Buddhist man wishing to marry a Buddhist woman would be required to convert to Buddhism.
The nationwide signature campaign began in Burma’s second-biggest city, Mandalay, earlier this month, with advocates distributing copies of the proposal to pedestrians. The campaign closed in Mandalay on Monday, U Wirathu said, but was continuing in other areas.
Asked if he was pleased with collecting nearly 2.5 million signatures—in a country of about 60 million people—the monk said he was satisfied.
“If the government supported us by holding a referendum [on the proposal], we would see even more support,” he told The Irrawaddy.
The proposed marriage law has been promoted as a way to improve inter-communal relations in Burma and protect Buddhist women, who supporters say could face abuse or forced religious conversion in interfaith marriages.
However, it seems that not everyone who joined the signature campaign was familiar with the proposal’s details.
“I don’t know about the law,” Ma Htay Htay, a woman signing her name at a campaign booth in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy earlier this month. “I heard songs playing [from the booth] about protecting Burmese women, so I came here to sign.
“Burmese women cannot go out alone at night because there are many men who might insult us, abuse us or rape us. We women are weak. I think this law will protect us from these abuses.”
Another Mandalay resident, Ma Myint Lwin, also joined the campaign. “I was urged to sign if I’m Buddhist,” she said. “I’ve heard songs from this booth as well, encouraging me to protect Burmese women, so I came here to sign. I haven’t read the draft law yet but will read it later.”
A campaign official at one of the booths explained why he supported the bill.
“I’ve seen video footage showing true stories of Buddhist women who married Muslim men and are suffering now, with no right to believe in Buddhism,” he said. “If this law is passed, our Buddhist women will have protection from interfaith marriage, and this will prevent suffering.”
U Wirathu said that as of this week, campaigners had collected about 950,000 signatures of support from Upper Burma and more than 1.5 million signatures from Lower Burma. He said the signatures had been sent to the head monk at a monastery in Rangoon, who would submit them to Parliament at a later date.
The proposed marriage law comes amid growing unrest in Burma between Buddhists and Muslims, who are estimated to make up some 5 percent of the country’s population. Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 150,000 people—mostly Muslims—have been displaced in communal violence and anti-Muslim riots since June last year. A nationalist Buddhist campaign, led by U Wirathu and known as the 969 movement, has also gained momentum by calling on Buddhists to shun Muslim businesses.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has opposed the marriage bill as discriminatory and a violation of human rights—criticisms that other women’s rights activists have also highlighted.
“It’s based on extreme nationalism and religious extremism,” said Zin Mar Aung, a prominent Burmese activist who last year received the annual International Women of Courage Award from former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “It interferes with the individual liberty of Buddhist women and is an insult to their rationality.”
Last month, the proposed law was condemned in a joint statement by eight Rangoon-based women’s rights groups, including Zin Mar Aung’s Rainfall Gender Study Group. Members of several women’s groups also convened earlier this month in Rangoon to discuss the proposal.
Among those at the meeting on July 7 was 41-year-old Ma Htar Htar, an activist who last year helped launch the “Whistle for Help” campaign in Rangoon to raise awareness of sexual harassment. She said the group agreed that the draft law violated women’s rights but decided they would not launch a formal protest against it at this time.
“We decided this is not something we should respect or focus our efforts on,” she said. “Even if it is submitted, we don’t think our government will accept it or pass it. It doesn’t look like a proper law—a law should be really specific.
“We will be monitoring it, but we don’t think we need to respond.”
She said other proposed legislation, such as a bill to protect women from violence, were more worthy of attention and support. She added that the proposed marriage law could be a ploy by figures in power to distract the public from other issues as the country transitions from nearly half a century of military rule.
“I think this is a trick to make us shift our attention,” she said. “They are trying to create conflict among monks and women—even monks are disagreeing with each other.”
Some critics say the proposed marriage law highlights broader gender inequality in the country, while others say it is inappropriate for monks to mix with politics.
“I’m against the bill because it was drafted by monks. According to the Buddha, monks are solely responsible for guiding laymen to Nirvana,” said Aye Thiri Sein, 33, a journalist at the True News Weekly Journal in Rangoon. “I simply can’t accept the idea of clergymen’s involvement in social and marital affairs.
“The most powerful organization in Burma is the army, and the Buddhist clergy are in second place,” she added. “The drafting of the interfaith marriage law, led by U Wirathu, is, in my opinion, just testing their influence.”