Nationalist Monks Call NGOs ‘Traitors’ for Opposing Interfaith Marriage Bill

By Nyein Nyein 12 May 2014

A nationalist Buddhist monk movement has called Burmese civil society groups “traitors” because they object to the interfaith marriage bill that the monks have put forth.

The group of monks, also known as the 969 movement or the Association of Protection of Race and Religion (Mabatha), issued a statement on Friday saying that “those activists objecting to the bill are traitors on national affairs.”

The Mandalay-based radical movement said they “condemn those critics, who are backed by foreign groups, for raising the human rights issues and not [working for] the benefit of the public and not [being] loyal to the state.”

In recent months, the 969 movement and its public figurehead U Wirathu have hired lawyers to draft a bill that, if enacted, would require Buddhist women to get permission from parents and government officials before marrying a man from another faith. The bill also calls for non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before marrying Buddhist women.

Other sections of the bill would ban polygamy and include unspecified restrictions enforcing family planning measures.

U Wirathu has repeatedly stated that Burma’s Muslim minority—which represent around 5 percent of the country’s approximately 55 million people—is a threat to Buddhism. He told The Irrawaddy on Monday that the bill would “protect women” from Muslim men and “is not violate the rights of women.” He added that he expected the bill to be released publicly in early June.

The bill is being proposed at a time of heightened inter-religious tensions in Burma. Recurrent outburst of anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State and dozens of cities in Burma have left scores dead and tens of thousands, mostly Muslims, displaced since 2012.

The radical 969 movement stands accused of fanning hate speech against Muslims and has called for Buddhists to shun Muslim-owned shops.

The movement claims to have collected 4 million signatures in a petition campaign in support of the bill in recent months. Neither government leaders nor lawmakers have dared to oppose the political initiative of the Buddhist clergymen, who are deeply revered in Burma.

In March, the monk’s draft was accepted for consideration by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Attorney-General’s Office, which are preparing the bill for a vote in Parliament.

Burmese civil society groups have grown increasingly concerned about the interfaith marriage bill, also known as the Law on Protection Race and Religion, which would violate basic international human rights standards.

Spearheaded by women’s rights activists, some 130 NGOs signed a statement last week condemning the bill and faith-based political activities and argued that these “events and ideas [are] designed to distract the public before the 2015 election.”

Aung Myo Min, director of Equality Myanmar, dismissed the 969 movement’s attack on civil society groups. “We are not the traitors to our race or religion,” he said. “We are raising our concerns about some of the worst impacts of the Protection of Race and Religion bill.”

Sein Sein Shwe Latt, a spokesperson of women’s rights group Phan Tee Eain, said civil society groups would send a letter to President Thein Sein requesting a meeting in which they would share their concerns and offer recommendations regarding the interfaith marriage bill.

“The idea is to meet with the president, as well as with leading monks, the respective authorities and the legislators, and to share our suggestions,” she said.

May Sabae Phyu, a coordinator of Gender Equality Network said, the bill needs to be stopped because “it hinders the public’s and especially women’s rights to make a decision on their marriage and [affects] their rights to religious freedom too.”

May Sabae Phy condemned the government’s participation in drafting a bill that would violate the most fundamental human rights if enacted. “It is a very shameful action if we look at in terms of human rights or international standards,” she said.

May Sabae Phy dismissed claims by the monks that they were improving the protection of women’s rights, adding, “By drafting this bill it seems Burmese society is going back to old conservative ages.”

Additional reporting by Nang Seng Nom.