In Rift Over Interfaith Ban, A New Fault Line For Burmese Politics

Jun 24, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 7:50 am

Myanmar's parliament is now considering a bill that would restrict marriages of people from different religions. Buddhist nationalists hope it will protect their religion from the spread of Islam and claim it's a way to prevent coerced conversions, but critics lambaste the proposed law as targeting the country's Muslim minority.

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar, a social movement to restrict marriage between people of different religions has been gaining momentum. It now has the support of the country's president and could soon become law. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that the law and the debate surrounding it have shown another rift in Burmese society that's opened up since the country began democratic reforms three years ago.

(DRUM BEAT)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The beating of a drum signals lunchtime at a Buddhist monastery outside Yangon. An activist monk here named Parmoukha is leading the campaign for a law that would require people to get government approval to marry someone from another faith or to convert to another religion. He's also pushing for laws that would ban polygamy and limit family size. The measures are widely seen as targeting Myanmar's Muslim minority. But Parmoukha says their purpose is simply to protect Buddhist women's rights.

PARMOUKHA: (Through translator) When they marry Muslim men, they are forced to convert Muslim. If they divorce or are widowed, they have no right to their share of the men's property.

KUHN: Muslims make up about 15 percent of the population in Myanmar. Most of the rest are Buddhist. The two have coexisted for centuries but since the end of military rule in 2011, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims have claimed more than 200 lives. Human rights groups say the violence is fueled by Buddhist nationalist and their idea that if you're not Buddhist, you're somehow less Burmese. U Aung Myaing, another activist pushing for the new law, says he rejects that kind of thinking.

U AUNG MYAING: (Through translator) We don't want to say we're a Buddhist nation. We don't use that phrase or try to marginalize other religions or ethnic groups. But the situation is changing. Immigrants are coming and spreading throughout our country.

KUHN: He points to census data that he says suggests that the Muslim population is increasing and the Buddhist one decreasing. Arrayed against the proposed law, meanwhile, is an informal coalition of civic groups, artists and opposition politicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED SONG)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: This song promoting tolerance is part of a civil society campaign against hate speech. Opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has spoken out against the proposed law. A Yangon-based artist who goes by the stage name says Zoncy Buddhist woman don't need the monk's help.

ZONCY: (Through translator) Buddhist women can protect themselves by understanding existing laws. The proposed law's backers say they want to protect women's rights. But I have serious doubts about whose rights they really want to protect.

KUHN: Matt Walton is a Myanmar expert at the University of Oxford in England. He knows that the interfaith marriage law has driven a wedge between activist Buddhist monks and the pro-democracy camp. He says they both opposed the former ruling junta, but they were never very clear on exactly what should replace it.

MATT WALTON: They are calling for an end to military dictatorship and to repressive laws and things like that but there was no common line on democracy or what democracy would look like.

KUHN: Back at the monastery, the monks say a prayer before their lunch. Parmoukha says that the drive for the marriage law is not a trick engineered by the government. It's a real grassroots movement.

PARMOUKHA: (Through translator) We have never cooperated with any government or political party on this law. It's not based on what the government needs. We're doing this for Myanmar's future.

KUHN: Parmoukha says he's got 4 million signatures on a petition supporting the law. And he says if he needs to, he'll get more. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News.

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