A draft law proposed by Buddhist monks that would restrict interreligious marriage threatens to divide the Buddhist community in Burma, according to a prominent 88 Generation Students group member.
Ko Ko Gyi, a senior leader from the pro-democracy group, said a more inclusive dialogue should be held before any law is submitted to Parliament.
“The law is a sensitive one,” he said. “We need to think about it very carefully and thoroughly, such as what potential negative effects it might have politically and socially. This is why I told the monks to have one more workshop to let all people be included to discuss it.”
The workshop would potentially be held within the next two weeks in Rangoon, according to Ko Ko Gyi.
The Daily Eleven newspaper reported on Thursday that senior Buddhist monk U Aggha Nyana urged monks at an event in Bahan Township, Rangoon, to respect others’ faiths when discussing ethnic and religious issues.
“All of us need to act according to the laws of Dhamma. Whenever we talk, we should not hurt or disturb other religions,” U Aggha Nyana said.
Last month, a gathering of Buddhist monks approved draft legislation that would put restrictions on marriages between Buddhist women and Muslim men. The monks, who are working actively to promote the proposal, argue that the restrictions would help improve inter-communal relations in Burma.
However, Ko Ko Gyi said he was worried about perceptions of Buddhism among the international community if the plan goes forward.
“Our religion is a peaceful one. I told them [the monks] to have one more workshop in order to present a good image of the Buddhist religion,” he said.
The 88 Generation Students group has primarily advocated for human rights and democratic change in Burma over the last 20 years, and its leadership worries that religious violence in the country may bog down the ongoing political reform process.
“I respect Buddhist monks as I am a Buddhist man. But if someone is to hijack this religious law and politicize it, I will not accept this. It will sow disunity among the Burmese people and all people should avoid this,” Ko Ko Gyi said.
The proposed religious law comes at a time of growing tensions between Burma’s majority Buddhists and Muslims, who are estimated to make up some 5 percent of the country’s total population.
Violence between the two religious 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, which has included the razing of mosques, and Muslim-owned homes and businesses.
“After destroying one building, another new building will rise again,” Ko Ko Gyi said. “So I wanted to say those who create violence: You are the losers, not the winners.”