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Monks and religious leaders back interfaith marriage ban

A growing number of monks and religious leaders have come out in support of Burma’s controversial proposal to ban interfaith marriages, despite accusations that it would violate basic human and women’s rights.

The backing comes on the same week that its main architect and leader of the ultra-nationalists “969” movement, Wirathu, prepares to present another draft of the law to a monks’ convention in Rangoon.

An earlier draft of the law was sidelined by religious leaders during another religious meeting earlier this month, after it attracted outrage from political and civil society leaders. But Wirathu says the latest draft is “more balanced” and has garnered significant support through the collection of signatures.

Senior religious figures told DVB that the law, which would force Buddhist women to obtain permission from the authorities before marrying a Muslim, is “necessary” to protect their religion.

“This law is necessary for Burma because it is a loss for Buddhists when [Buddhist women] get married to foreigners and those from other religions,” said Aung Myaing, chairperson of the Theravada Dharma Network, a Burmese religious network. ”Our Buddhist women are not intelligent enough to protect themselves.”

A monk from Kaythara Rama monastery in Rangoon added that the law was drafted with support from legal experts, as well as the government-backed monastic body, the Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee. This seems to contradict government claims that they do not actively support Wirathu’s “969” movement, which calls for Buddhists to boycott Muslim shops and businesses.

The monk also slammed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who recently criticised the law for violating human rights and women’s liberty.

“Now a major political party’s chairperson is claiming this law violates human rights and she is absolutely wrong – she needs to change her statement,” said Monk Kaythara in an interview. “This law doesn’t say one cannot have interfaith marriage and so in no way violates human rights.”

The law demands that any Muslim man, who wants to marry a Buddhist woman, must first convert to her religion. Meanwhile, Buddhist women are obliged to obtain permission from her parents and local authorities before marrying a Muslim man.

Women’s rights groups have lashed out against the proposal and said that they would lobby against its implementation. But reports suggest that some women, who have spoken out against the proposal have been hounded and abused on social media by supporters of Wirathu.

However, in a parliamentary session today, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Kyaw Kyaw Tun, insisted that there were no plans to adopt new legislation addressing religious or racial tensions in Burma. “Existing laws are sufficient,” he said.

More moderate voices have also condemned the proposed marriage ban. “I don’t think we need that in our country,” said Thet Zin, the chief editor of Today’s Era Magazine. “Our country is inhabited by majority Buddhists and Buddha himself never taught or suggested forcing people into Buddhism.”

Burma’s national human rights commission has also slammed the proposal as unconstitutional. “It’s only necessary to have mutual respect between the two religions,” said secretary Sitt Myaing.

The proposed marriage ban comes amid escalating tensions over a recent cover of Time Magazine, which brands Wirathu “The Buddhist Face of Terror”. The edition was banned from publication by the government on Tuesday, after a flurry of outrage from political parties and local media.

Describing him as a “son of Buddha”, President Thein Sein on Sunday defended both Wirathu and his “969” movement as committed to peace.

In an interview with DVB on Monday, the president’s spokesperson, Ye Htut, also backed the notorious monk, who has been described as a “hate preacher” by most rights groups, adding that it was not his responsibility to monitor or restrict the content of his sermons.

But rights groups insist that it is the government’s job to both protect free speech and prevent incitement to religious violence. “Unfortunately what we can see here is that the government is failing to do either,” Oliver Spencer from the free speech group, Article 19, told DVB.

Burma has seen a rise in religious tensions since last year, when Buddhists clashed with Rohingya Muslims in Arakan state, displacing some 140,000 people and killing over 200. Since March, renewed bouts of anti-Muslim violence, which have been directly linked to Wirathu’s “969” campaign, have claimed another 44 lives.

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