Current laws being propagated under the premise of preserving religion and creed, might do more harm than good
By Isheta Salgaocar
This week, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein asked parliament to consider a law prohibiting inter-faith marriage between Buddhists and non-Buddhists without parental consent and conversion of all parties to Buddhism — the state’s majority religion. If passed, the law will accord Buddhists special status in a country where they represent 90 percent of the 60 million people and likely exacerbate fraught tensions between the new democracy’s religious groups.
Barely five years old, Myanmar’s democratic government has witnessed ferocious communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims. In March, April, May, August and October last year, Myanmar played host to a series of anti-Muslim riots, leading to the destruction of mosques and schools by fire. All told, the fighting has left more than 200 dead and 140,000 displaced.
But while sponsors argue that the law merely “protects” the interests of Buddhists, opponents and international observers believe it threatens the principles and freedoms that Myanmar’s young democracy needs to preserve.
If passed, the law would require a Muslim who wishes to marry a Buddhist to first “obtain permission from [the Buddhist] parents and local officials”. Despite the approval, the non-Buddhist must also renounce their own religion and secure proof of their conversion to Buddhism. A failure to produce this proof could result in consequences such as the government seizing the individual’s property.
Under the guise of a “national protection bill”, the pending law has gained support since it was introduced in July 2013 by extremist Buddhist Monk, Ashin Wirathu. Wirathu is at the forefront of the controversial 969 movement whose support for the law mirrors its leader’s hardline stance on Rohingya Muslims. He has earlier called for a separate nation for them; in public speeches, he openly rejects Islam, and supports the boycott of Muslim-owned businesses. To date, Wirathu’s 969 movement has collected over a million signatures in support of the interfaith-marriage law.
Opposition leader, and a strong voice for women in the region, Aung Sang Suu Kyi has already opposed the law, believing the restrictions not only violate women’s liberties, but also infringe on basic human rights — most clearly the freedom of religion.
While Buddhists might rightly support the protection their community, the legislation at hand actually threatens their very cause. By isolating a single group and forcing individuals to renounce their religion, the law creates a dubious double standard destined to incite furor from minority groups —be they Muslims, Christians, Hindus or Animists. That these latest measures follow the United Nations report citing Rohingya (Muslims) as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples, serves only to show the law’s dirty underbelly: political predation.
Last year in London, President Thein Sein, in a statement at Chatham House, asserted his administration’s “zero-tolerance approach to any renewed violence and against those who fuel ethnic hatred.” But the president’s latest decision might rightly be seen as capitulation to the narrative preached by 969 supporters —where mosques are “enemy bases” and Wirathu’s history of inciting anti-Muslim violence fails to tarnish his role as a “symbol of peace.”
While seeking permission before marrying might seem romantic in principle, a society where you are legally required to do so sets up a precedent where personal choice might not have much weight at all. When political policy governs an individual’s choice, who is to say where the fundamentalists will corner the government next? This legal ‘use of force’ seems dangerously out of step with a religion based, at least in part, on the precepts of charity and the accumulation of good deeds.