Myanmar Leader Backs Buddhist Monks’ Calls for Laws to ‘Protect’ Religion, Race

Myanmar’s President Thein Sein has asked parliament to consider enacting laws aimed largely at minority Muslims that would restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversion, ban polygamy, and control population growth, according to lawmakers Thursday.

Thein Sein's recommendation to consider legislation covering the four issues echoed calls in a petition circulated by Buddhist monks and signed by more than one million people in a bid to “protect the race and religion” of the Buddhist-majority nation.

In response, Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann said Thursday that the onus was on the government to draft and propose the laws to the legislature.

Thein Sein’s request was based on a petition—which he forwarded to Shwe Mann—from a group of senior monks who support the 969 Movement, which claims Myanmar’s minority Muslims are threatening the Buddhist majority following dead sectarian violence.

Shwe Mann told lawmakers on the parliament floor Thursday that relevant ministries should draft bills on the topics before lawmakers can discuss them.

He then said he believed the religious affairs ministry would have to handle the bill on religious conversions while the home affairs ministry could look into marriage and monogamy bills.

He also suggested that the immigration department of the foreign affairs ministry, among other government bodies, study the prospects of a bill to check population growth.

Monks' petition

The Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief—headed by monk Tilawaka Biwuntha—had proposed legislation in those four areas in a petition submitted to Thein Sein in July 2013.

Laws “safeguarding the national race and religion” were necessary, the group said, for preventing further sectarian violence in Myanmar, which since 2012 has suffered several bouts of deadly violence between Buddhists and Muslims as it emerges from decades under tightly controlled military rule.

Muslims have borne the brunt of the violence, many of them ethnic minority Rohingyas in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

In pushing their petition last year, Buddhist monks have said that Buddhist women wishing to marry non-Buddhist men must first receive permission from their parents and local government officials.

Concerned that Muslims are spreading their faith by marrying Buddhist women, the monks also want non-Buddhist men wishing to marry Buddhist women to first convert to the faith.

The monks have also expressed fears of an expanding population of Muslims, who they say have large families and are allowed under Islam to have up to four wives.

Shwe Mann, who is the chairman of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said he would write to Thein Sein urging the government to take responsibility for the issue, according to the Irrawaddy online journal.

Decision applauded

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi applauded Shwe Mann’s decision to send the proposals back to relevant ministries, saying that was normal procedure.

“The relevant government ministries have to decide and suggest what they think on this issue,” the National League for Democracy chair told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“When they get back to parliament with their recommendations, then parliament will have to comment and decide on it.”

“I agree with House Speaker Shwe Mann’s decision on the president’s orders because it is in accordance with the law and the needs of our nation,” Aung San Suu Kyi said.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner has faced calls from international rights groups to speak up more aggressively for the protection of Muslims in the country as well as pressure from Buddhist groups within Myanmar not to be too sympathetic to Muslims.

On Thursday, she did not comment on the proposed pieces of legislation themselves but last year, she criticized the monks’ proposal to curb inter-faith marriages, saying it discriminated against women, violated human rights and the country's laws, and was contrary to Buddhism itself.

Pro-Buddhist movement

Rights groups have accused Buddhists linked to the 969 Movement—led by monk Wirathu, who has called on Buddhists to boycott Muslim-owned shops and businesses—of spouting hate speech and inflaming mob violence.

The movement has enjoyed growing support at both the grass-roots and in the government, with supporters claiming it is intended solely for the protection of Buddhism and not as an anti-Muslim crusade.

The Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief has said that an additional 3 million people have signed their petition since it was submitted to Thein Sein with 1,335,600 signatures, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma.

Rakhine Nationalities Development Party lawmaker Khin Saw Wai from Rakhine state said a law enforcing monogamy would help put an end to polygamy among Rohingyas and curb their population growth.

“[Rohingyas] in Rakhine State has many wives. People who really lose human rights are these [Rohingya] women because they are afraid of telling their husbands what difficulties they are facing and what they feel,” she told RFA, adding that a monogamy law would help improve their situation.

“Also, it is very good for controlling the population,” she said.

Other lawmakers said proposals for legislation protecting race and religion were a “delicate” issue that should be put off until after 2015 elections.

“I think it is better to write these laws after the election. I suspect that the request to write these bills could be a political weapon,” USDP lawmaker Hla Swe said.

The Myanmar constitution recognizes the “special position” of Buddhism as the faith professed by the majority of its people and also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the country.