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Burmese Buddhist Monks demand limits to mixed marriages and Rohingya civil rights

Popular norm to be presented in Parliament gains support and signatures. It places constraints on unions between Buddhist women and men of other religions, which must have approval. Added to this the intention to deny the Muslim minority the right to vote and to form a political party.

By Francis Khoo Thwe
January 18, 2014

Yangon – A petition in support of a law that places strong constraints on mixed marriages, especially between Buddhist women and men of other faiths is gaining support. Launched by a group of Buddhist monks it is due to be presented to Parliament. A conference was recently held in Mandalay attended by thousands of monks who have – at the same time – re-proposed a law to restrict the rights of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority, who live mainly in Rakhine State in western Myanmar. The draft would greatly reduce their freedom to form a political party and increased restrictions on their right to vote.

The meeting was held at the A Tu Tu Shi monastery and was attended by over 10 thousand monks, who re-proposed the norm drafted in the past year and expressed their intention of bringing it before Parliament thanks to the contribution of Members of the National Democratic Front (NDF ) . If approved, Burmese women of the Buddhist faith will have to ask permission from their parents , and local government officials, to marry a man of a different faith. And a non Buddhist must first be converted, to be able to get married.

For NDF members of the 1954 Law on marriages is insufficient and does not protect women and children from the risk of being converted to other religions or nationalities. The proposed reform is part of the sectarian tensions, which in some cases resulted in real violence between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority. The clashes broke out in 2012 and were concentrated in the western state of Rakhine, home to the Rohingya Muslim minority and which left at least 200 people dead and thousands displaced.

The leadership of the Buddhist movement point out that so far three million signatures have been collected throughout Myanmar, but the goal is to add another million before submitting the proposal to the House . During the meeting, the Buddhist leaders have also created an association called Upper Myanmar Organization for the Protection of Nation and Religion ( Umopnr ), which aims to protect “men and women ” from mixed marriages , which are considered harmful . They are also launching a warning to the media, pointing out that it represents ” the fourth pillar of the democratic state ” and therefore must be careful to document in a ” thorough and proper way” according to “ethical principles” and not “harm the interests of the nation or reason”.

During the assembly the Buddhist leadership has also proposed a new norm that if passed would deny holders of a temporary identity card the right to vote or form a political movement. A legal technicality that has a clear goal: to prevent the Rohingya people from participating in elections , as was the case in 2010. The monks also demand that the approximately 800 thousand members of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State be referred to by the name “Bengali “, arguing that they are (allegedly) “illegal immigrants” from neighboring Bangladesh , and consequently deprived of any right to citizenship .