RANGOON — Religious and political leaders in Burma have questioned whether the country needs a so-called protection of race and religion law, and accused the government of using religion for political gain.
A petition calling for the law—backed by a Buddhist nationalist movement and widely believed to be targeted at Burma’s Muslim minority—has collected more than 1.3 million signatures. The proposed legislation would restrict women’s ability to marry men from other faiths, regulate conversion between religions, attempt to limit population growth and outlaw polygamy—which is already illegal in Burma.
Earlier this month, President Thein Sein informed Parliament that his government would form a commission to work on a draft of some parts of the law, with other parts being handled by the Union Supreme Court.
The proposal has been criticized by women’s groups and NGOs, and some say the president is seeking to exploit religious nationalism ahead of elections in 2015, in which the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) is expected to win the popular vote.
Well-known Buddhist monk Shwe Nya War Sayadaw said Thein Sein was risking enflaming tensions in order to win political support.
“The issue of religion is the best marketing tool in politics. I noticed that U Thein Sein has begun planning how to take advantage of this issue for the upcoming election,” said Shwe Nya War Sayadaw, who is based in a monastery in Okkan town, Pegu Division.
“From my point of view, in order to have stable development, our country needs to have peace, national reconciliation and unity among the ethnic groups. Trying to have a protection of race and religion law is bad for political situation in our country.”
The senior monk said that the discussion over the law was a distraction from more important political issues, like the fight to amend the military-drafted and much-criticized 2008 Constitution—led by NLD Chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Our Buddhist monks will become political prey if we keep talking about protection of race and religion. At this time we all only need to think about how to amend the Constitution and how to have national reconciliation. We should not spend time debating the issue of protecting race and religion,” said the monk.
The most controversial element of the proposed legislation would require women to have the permission of their parents and local authorities before marrying a man of another faith.
Sandar Min, an NLD member of Burma’s Parliament, said women did not need such a law to protect them.
“Is there anything wrong with our women so we need to have a law? Since we were young, we’ve known how to protect our dignity. We do not need a law,” she said.
“There is a rule in the Constitution that any political party cannot take political advantage by using the issue of religion. I feel they [the government] are trying to get votes from people by trying to bring in this law.”
Khun Htun Oo, the leader of the Shan National League for Democracy, agreed that the law was unnecessary.
“I am a Buddhist, but I feel we do not need this law. We all need to protect our religions, this is not only for Buddhists, but other religions as well,” he said. “But it is very dangerous to have this law because our country has different religions. And when there are problems concerning the issue of race, it is very dangerous.”
The proposed law was drawn up by lawyers employed by the nationalist 969 movement led by Buddhist monk U Wirathu. The movement supports a boycott of Muslim-owned businesses and argues that Burma’s biggest religion is under threat from Islam.
Ye Noung Thein, general secretary of All Myanmar Mawlawi Association, a collection of Muslim leaders in Burma, said the law should protect all people’s right to religion.
“I do not think a law is needed to protect Buddhism in particular,” he said.