Monk Conference Backs Bills to Restrict Interfaith Marriage, Rohingya Voting

By Zarni Mann 16 January 2014

MANDALAY — Thousands of Buddhist monks who gathered at a conference in Mandalay will continue to submit signatures to Parliament in support of a proposed law that would restrict interfaith marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths.

The monks also said they supported proposed legislation that would restrict the rights of ethnic Rohingya Muslims in west Burma to form political parties or vote.

More than 10,000 monks attended the conference at A Tu Ma Shi monastery on Wednesday. They said the draft interfaith marriage law, which emerged after a monks’ conference in Rangoon last year, would be sent to Parliament with help from the National Democratic Front (NDF). If passed, the law would force Buddhist women to get permission from their parents and local government officials before marrying a man of any other faith. A non-Buddhist man wishing to marry a Buddhist woman would be required to convert to Buddhism.

“Daw Khin Wine Kyi from the NDF party promised to help with the law,” said U Yattha, a leading monk. “We are not actually involved in drafting this law, although some people have accused us of getting involved in politics as monks. We are just helping because it is very important for this law to be enacted, as the marriage law of 1954 is not enough to protect women and children from being converted to other religions or nationalities.”

After Buddhist monks first proposed the idea for the draft law last year, they hired lawyers to take care of writing it. At the time, the bill was promoted as a way to protect Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men and potentially being forced to convert to Islam.

The proposal came amid heightened religious tensions in Buddhist-majority Burma, following a number of anti-Muslim riots across the country that left hundreds dead and nearly 2,000 people displaced. The majority of victims were Muslims, especially Rohingyas in the western state of Arakan.

A nationalist anti-Muslim group known as 969 also collected signatures last year to support the draft interfaith marriage law. The group calls on Buddhists to shun Muslim-run businesses and is led by nationalist monk Wirathu, who resides at a monastery in Mandalay and also attended the conference on Wednesday.

At the conference, leading monks said about 3 million signatures from across the country had been given to NDF lawmakers, for submission together with the draft law, while another 1 million signatures would be sent to the party soon.

“We believe more signatures will come, and of course we will submit them to Parliament,” U Yattha said. “We will continue pushing for the passage of the interfaith marriage draft law—we will not stop until the law is enacted.”

U Eainda Sakka Biwuntha said the goal was not to single out any particular faith.

“The marriage law is not only to protect Buddhists. Other religions will also have legal protections from this law as well,” he said.

“We do not know why only Muslims have raised concerns and taken this proposal as a threat, while others, the Hindus and Christians, are silent. This is a question we want to have answered.”

In a statement released at the conference, the monks said they also supported a separate bill to restrict the rights of temporary ID holders to forming political parties or voting. The bill, expected to be put forward in Parliament in the coming weeks, is seen as targeting Muslims because thousands of Rohingyas were given temporary IDs, or “white cards,” before the 2010 elections, enabling them to vote.

The statement also encouraged media to report impartially on religious conflicts.

“Some of the reporting about the clashes between Buddhists and Muslims has been biased, creating more tension between the two groups,” U Eainda Sakka Biwuntha said. “For this conference, too, if the media reports in a biased way, or if they quote monks who are not spokespersons, we will sue them.”

The monks urged reporters to use the term “Bengali” when referring to the 800,000 or so people in Arakan State known internationally as Rohingyas. Many Buddhists in the state accuse the Rohingyas of being illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh, and the government also calls them as Bengalis while largely denying them citizenship.

The monks at the conference formed an Upper Burma chapter of the Group to Protect Nationality, Religion and the Buddhist Mission, a nationwide non-government organization that was established last year.

The group says it seeks to support the draft interfaith marriage law, to prevent religious conversions, and to dispel rumors that can enflame religious tensions. “For example, the recent incident in Meikhtila was based on rumors about the fighting between Buddhists and Muslims,” U Eainda Sakka Biwuntha said, referring to anti-Muslim riots that left over 40 people dead last year in March. “The situation was eased because our group members rushed to the area, investigated the reality and spread the truth to the public. …That’s one activity our group will continue to do in the future, for the stability of the country.”

The Upper Burma chapter said it would educate children about Buddhism, encouraging them to respect and maintain their own religion and nationalism.

Other well-known senior monks at the conference included Sayadaw Insein Ywama, Sayadaw Sitagu, Sayadaw Shwe Nya War, Sayadaw Galone Ni, and abbots from Shwe Kyin monastery.

Some monks emphasized the need for peace in efforts to protect Buddhism.

“It is important to be patient and work with forgiveness in order to maintain the Sasana [Buddhist mission],” said Sayadaw Sitagu, also known as U Nyar Neitthara.