14-21 March 2014edge review

Photo: Women at Yangon’s Kandawgyi Park (Terry Feuerborn/Flickr)

Proposed law limiting interfaith marriage in Myanmar speaks to Buddhist fears

Although the people of Myanmar are now experiencing freedoms denied to them for decades, the national psyche remains defined by fear.  To be sure, today’s fears are somewhat different from those of the recent past: more nebulous, perhaps, informed as they are by the notion that threats to Myanmar’s distinct Burman-Buddhist culture are everywhere and need to be confronted with steely resolve

Buddhism in Myanmar, of course, is nothing if not resilient. Practiced by probably 80 per cent of the country’s population – although reliable statistics are hard to come by – the faith has an unbroken lineage dating back millennia. Buddhism is indelibly woven into the fabric of daily life across the majority of the country, and will need no special dispensation or official promotion to continue to thrive.

But listening to the fears expressed by a disturbingly large proportion of the country’s population nowadays, one might be excused for thinking Buddhism faces an imminent threat from “foreign” influences – primarily, but not entirely, Muslims. Among the most flagrant manifestations of this line of thinking is a proposed law that would restrict marriages between Buddhist women and men of other faiths, which manages at the same time to be both staggeringly racist and deeply sexist.

Last June, around 1,500 monks from across the country gathered in Yangon at the invitation of notorious nationalist monk U Wirathu, whose divisive hate speech has been blamed for catalysing widespread anti-Muslim violence over the past two years. He proposed a bill be drafted that would prohibit Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men. Aung Myaing, leader of a prominent lay Buddhist organisation, told reporters such measures were necessary because “Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

Under provisions of the first draft of the bill, a Buddhist woman would need to get permission from her parents as well as local authorities in order to marry a Muslim man. If her petition were to be accepted, the man would have to convert to Buddhism. Failing to do so would subject the man to a prison sentence of up to 10 years as well as the possible seizure of his property.

After the conference last June, Wirathu and his allies canvassed the country collecting signatures supporting the draft bill. In January, Wirathu announced he had collected an astonishing three million signatures supporting marriage restrictions, and his supporters continue to maintain kiosks around the country to collect even more.

In a country closed off to the outside world for five decades, with a government dominated by a paranoid military fixated on rooting out “internal and external destructive elements,” it is perhaps no surprise that conditioning has cultivated a siege mentality receptive to conspiracy theories. But it is likely that a blind adherence to authority that is the real problem: if esteemed religious leaders say that measures must be taken to “protect Buddhism,” the social sanctions for disagreeing are bound to be high.

In January, Wirathu organised another conference in Mandalay, where the committee resolved that its proposed legislation go even further, barring marriages between Buddhist women and “non-Buddhist men.” This implies any measures to “protect Buddhism” would apply to followers of other faiths,  such as Christianity and Hinduism, as well. The conference also called for more restrictions to be placed on the Rohingya, and for a crackdown on polygamy.

Because Article 348 of Myanmar’s controversial 2008 constitution prohibits discrimination “based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth,” it is incredible that such blatantly discriminatory proposals could gain political traction. But gained traction they have.

In late February, President Thein Sein recommended a parliamentary commission be established to look into implementing a law “protecting race and religion,” based on the petition presented to him by Wirathu and his allies last year.  Shwe Mann, the house speaker and the only other civilian in government to rival Thein Sein in power and prominence, equivocated by saying such laws should be the responsibility of individual ministries.

Despite their well-documented political rivalry, Myanmar’s two most powerful civilians – Thein Sein and Shwe Mann – appear to have decided to work together and stonewall attempts at imposing the agenda of hardliners by miring their efforts in a bureaucratic miasma, with no clear avenues for them to bring the bill to the table for a vote.

If the marriage bill were to be passed, it would invariably impact the international legitimacy of Thein Sein’s reformist agenda as the 2015 elections approach. Yet the government can’t openly criticise the hardliners, despite the blatant unconstitutionality of the proposal, because this would alienate what has evidently grown into a very strong and powerful political force.

The monks pushing for the marriage ban have found allies in parliament by way of the Rakhine National Party and National Democratic Force, two minority parties known for their nationalist views. Any open criticism of the nationalist monks by the government would drive voters into the arms of the opposition.

Perhaps no politician is as acutely aware of this as is Aung San Suu Kyi. Although she has largely stayed silent on ethnic issues, she made a rare denunciation of efforts to restrict marriage last year, leading nationalist monks to insinuate she was a traitor to the Burmese race and the Buddhist faith. Wirathu has repeatedly implored the National League for Democracy, Suu Kyi’s party, to drop its campaign for constitutional reforms that would allow her to contest the presidency in 2015.

Monks have long played a political role in Myanmar, but have historically done so outside of the realm of established party politics. This attempt to directly influence legislation is without precedent, but makes sense as the institution of the monkhood is currently in flux.

Historically, the sangha – or monastic order – served as an informal check on the power of the monarchy, which, under successive military dictatorships, became replaced, in practice, by the institution of the military. Throughout decades of military dictatorship, the sangha and the military were the two most powerful institutions in the land, and – as demonstrated by the role monks played in the 2007 uprising against military rule – the sangha exerted pressure against the country’s military rulers when it felt it necessary to do so.

But as political reforms have progressed, two other nodes of power have joined the sangha and military in Myanmar’s political landscape: a powerful executive and a nominally independent parliament. Rousing nationalist sentiment is likely a way for the sangha to reassert its role in a new political order that uncomfortably marries the institutions of the old order with new organs of state.

Lost in this struggle for influence are the voices of Myanmar’s minorities and women, the pawns and boogeymen whose futures will allegedly determine the future of Burmese Buddhism.  As Myanmar’s political landscape consolidates in the run-up to the 2015 election, it remains to be seen if sanity – or paranoid demagoguery – will come to define the country’s near-term political future.

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