HMAWBI Township — A two-day conference of Buddhist monks concluded on Friday without any mention of a proposal by nationalist monk U Wirathu to lobby for a law that would put restrictions on Buddhist-Muslim marriages.
Instead, the organizers called for peace and communal harmony in Burma and denounced the proposal.
“To accept or not to accept the so-called restrictions on interfaith marriage will be decided in accordance with human rights [standards]. Anybody can marry at their own will,” said U Dhammapiya, a senior monk and a spokesman for the convention.
“I will not accept someone forcing others to convert to their religion. If it violates human rights, we cannot agree to it,” he said, adding that the organizers had not been involved in drafting the law.
U Wirathu, a Mandalay-based monk who leads the controversial 969 nationalist campaign, has produced a 15-page draft law that would require any Buddhist woman seeking to marry a Muslim man to first gain permission from her parents and local government officials.
The draft law, which he had been circulated at the convention and among journalists, would also require any Muslim man who marries a Buddhist woman to convert to Buddhism. Those who do not follow these rules could face up to 10 years in prison and have their property confiscated, according to the draft.
U Wirathu had vigorously defended the draft law on Thursday at a press conference, sitting beside U Dhammapiya and Ashin Saekeinda, the abbot of a monastery in Hmawbi Township, located just outside Rangoon, where the convention was held.
But on Friday afternoon, Ashin Saekeinda said he did not know who had circulated the draft law among participants and journalists, adding that it did not represent the position of the monks’ convention.
“I don’t know who delivered [the draft law]. I managed the meeting personally. I organized the meeting democratically and allowed anyone to participate,” the abbot said.
“I said that only [joint] announcements made during our meeting are official. Others issues don’t have anything to do with our meeting,” he added.
On Monday, eight Rangoon-based women rights’ groups issued a joint statement condemning U Wirathu’s proposed draft law, which he had claimed would “protect Buddhist women’s freedom.”
The organizations included the Karen Women’s Action Group, the 88 Generation Students Women Network, and the Triangle Women Support Group.
“Buddhist women are the target of this draft law, and we know nothing about it all. The ones who drafted the bill are monks. That means it doesn’t represent women,” said Zin Mar Aung, a founder of the Rainfall Gender Studies Group and a well-known women’s rights activist.
At the conclusion of the convention on Friday, its 227 participants issued a statement regarding the ongoing inter-communal tensions.
“We promote peaceful coexistence with all those who are living in the country,” the statement said, adding that the convention had identified seven areas of focus, which included “solving conflict by means of Buddhist way,” “promoting studies that lead to peace-building” and “law and order enforcement for peaceful coexistence.”
“We object to any action, false accusation or statement against Buddhism which are detrimental to Buddhism and the dignity of Buddhist monks,” the statement noted.
Ashin Saekeinda said, “These points were announced on behalf of all the monks in the country. It is an endeavor to educate the monks about peace, should they not understand it before. It is a discussion for the peaceful co-existence between religions.”
The abbot went on to state that the symbolic number 969, which is supposed to represent the tenets of Buddhist philosophy and teaching, is being abused by some during the volatile democratic transition period in Burma.
“Presently, the morale of those who are under 35 or 40 [year of age] is ruined and they’ve turned away from peace. As they are morally ruined, we try to guide them by means of sermons. Here, the number 969 exploited for evil purposes by some,” Ashin Saekeinda said.
U Wirtahu leads the nationalist 969 movement, which has encouraged Buddhist communities across Burma to shun Muslim-owned businesses and support Buddhist-owned shops instead.
His campaign has been accused of inflaming growing sectarian tensions between Burma’s Buddhists and Muslims, who are estimated to make up some 5 percent of the country’s total population.
Violence between Buddhists and Muslim communities broke out in Arakan State, western Burma, in June last year. The unrest has since spread to dozens of towns in other parts of the country. Hundreds of people have been killed and more than 150,000 people — mostly Muslims — have been forced to flee their homes.
Nationalist Buddhist monks have been accused of openly supporting the violence by calling for the removal Muslims from towns and villages in order to establish Buddhist dominance. In some cases, monks were reportedly observed participating in and organizing the street violence.