Campaigners Collect Signatures to Support Restrictive Interfaith Marriage Bill

By Zarni Mann 1 July 2013

MANDALAY—Advocates of a controversial draft law to restrict interfaith marriages between Buddhists and Muslims are collecting signatures for support in Burma’s second-biggest city.

“We gave copies of the draft law to pedestrians,” Cho Lay, a campaigner in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy. “We didn’t pressure them [to sign], but we explained what it’s about. Many were interested and some signed, as they agreed with the [draft] law.”

The draft law would require any Buddhist woman to get permission from her parents and local government officials before marrying a Muslim man. It would also require any Muslim man seeking to marry a Buddhist woman to first convert to Buddhism.

Campaigners told The Irrawaddy that they would submit the draft law to Parliament on July 15.

“To protect our nation and nationalities, this draft law must be passed,” Cho Lay said. “Because there’s no law to protect our Buddhist women, they become victims and their rights are abused. By collecting signatures we will know how many people are interested in protecting women. We will continue our campaign nationwide to collect more signatures.”

The signature-collecting campaign began in Mandalay over the weekend, while smaller campaigns were held in Sagaing Division and Magway Division in past weeks. The campaigners claim to have collected more than 5,000 signatures in Mandalay alone over the weekend.

“I think this law should be endorsed—that’s why I signed the paper,” a resident in Mandalay’s Maha Aung Myay Township said.

Another resident said he had not yet signed on to the campaign because he had not been able to study the draft law, but that he planned to read over it later.

U Wirathu, a nationalist monk known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric in Burma, is among the draft law’s most prominent supporters. He said on his Facebook page that campaigners had collected more than 500,000 signatures in upper Burma.

The draft law was first presented at a monks’ conference in Rangoon’s Hmawbi Township in the middle of last month. The bill was not related to the meeting—which was called to discuss ways of resolving tensions that have sparked deadly communal conflicts between majority Buddhists and Muslims in recent months—but was circulated on the sidelines in the presence of U Wirathu.

The draft law was quickly condemned by women’s groups and rights activists.

At a second conference of monks last week in Rangoon’s Insein Township, senior Buddhist leaders offered more support for the bill. At the meeting, which was again called to discuss ongoing tensions between Buddhists and Muslims, Buddhist leaders urged monks to unite to maintain peace in the country, but also said they supported the proposed restrictions on interfaith marriage and would pressure politicians to accept the bill.

Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in the past year have left more than 200 people dead and more than 150,000 people—mostly Muslims—displaced.