International Religious Freedom Report

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Burma is among a number of countries singled out by the Unites States Commission on Internationla Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for religious intolerance.  The full report can be read here while the section on Burma is available above.

As reported in the Myanmar Times:

“Bigotry and chauvinism against religious and ethnic minorities grew more pervasive, in some cases provoked by religious figures within the Buddhist community,” said the annual report, which also blamed expanded access to social media for enflaming religious hatred.

In addition to condemning expressions of intolerance toward Muslims and a routine “disenfranchisement” of the Rohingya, the report slams Myanmar for targeting largely Christian areas, such as Kachin and Chin states where cross removal is a “long-standing practice.”

Burmese parliament to debate religion laws

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As reported in Mizzima (‘Myanmar parliament to debate controversial religion laws‘) a set of laws proposed by Buddhist monks have been accepted by the Burmese President, Thein Sein, and will now be debated by the Burmese parliament in the new year.

The draft legislation has been proposed by a group led by Buddhist monks known as Mabatha (Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion) and has many controversial elements:

A draft of the marriage bill was published in Myanmar language state media on December 3, laying out a web of rules governing marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths.

Couples would have to apply to local authorities, and the woman’s parents if she is under 20, and a notice would be displayed publicly announcing the engagement. Only if there were no objections could the nuptials take place.

The penalty for non-compliance would be two years in prison.

The religious conversion draft, published earlier this year, would also require anyone wanting to change religion to seek a slew of bureaucratic permissions.

As I have stated before:

The laws are being proposed on the premise that Buddhism is under threat from other religions. The ‘Interfaith Marriage Act’ is one of the ‘National Race and Religion Protection Bills’ that have been proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR), headed by Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha. It is clear from the context of the monastic debate that the monks wish to prohibit marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men – it is then highly discriminatory with undertones of racism and Islamophobia.

There are a few obvious points that should be made about these proposed laws. Buddhism is a monastic tradition – it usually has little concern with secular affairs – and this historically most definitely includes marriage. It is commonplace in Buddhism to observe that there are no Buddhist marriage ceremonies. The monastics might in some ways ‘bless’ a couple after a secular marriage ceremony, and modern Buddhists might have replicated marriage ceremonies from other religions, but it can be stated quite categorically that the Buddhist monastic is not concerned with any type of marriage ceremony. It is this that makes the Burmese monastic debate such an odd phenomenon.

It needs to be stated that, traditionally, the Buddhist monastic is concerned with three things. First, the notion that all actions have consequences; that these actions are causing us to be reborn in an endless cycle of rebirths; and that, given the opportune conditions, the person should strive to end this cycle of rebirths which is pervaded by suffering. In short the monastic is concerned with Karma, Saṃsāra and Nibbāna.

Buddhist ‘race protection laws’

As this report points out ‘Burma’s constitution outlaws discrimination on race, religion, birth and sex ‘ but here are monks and nuns arguing in favour of laws restricting marriage between Buddhist women and Muslims. As one nun says ‘I joined this demonstration with the aim of protecting our religion’. One could also suggest that nowhere in the Buddhist Canon is there any sentiment that would support such discriminatory laws.

Some have argued that the military are behind these protests which places the Buddhist Sangha in an alliance with the military against any form of outside influence. There could be some validity to this but the complexity of differing narratives is not so easily disentangled.

‘Mabatha’ – The Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion – gathers pace

 

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As reported in the Myanmar Times ‘Mabatha’ – The committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion – gathers pace. U Ayeit Paing, one of its executive committee members was quoted on a number of points countering opposition to the proposed law banning Buddhist women marrying men from other religions, primarily Muslims.

‘After the Mabatha was established and we had a connection to the whole country, we had problems to solve daily for those who are abused by other religions.’

The article states that:

‘At the press conference large posters presented claims that Buddhist women had been raped by men from other religions, some of them suffering abortions and a few dying afterwards.

The religious committee is also pushing for a law to be enacted that would prohibit a citizen changing faith and another that would enforce monogamy.’

The issue of fostering nationalist Buddhist sentiment seems clear from the rhetoric being used. One monk, U Parmaukkha is quoted to the effect that those who are not nationalist or Buddhist can vote in the upcoming elections, while nationalist Buddhist monks cannot.

‘The people who aren’t patriotic can vote in elections while patriotic people like us can’t. It’s unfair.’

On Buddhist monks proposing ‘interfaith marriage laws’

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There is some debate in Burma about proposed laws that would prohibit interfaith marriage. The laws have been proposed by members of the Burmese Buddhist Sangha. If passed, the laws would prohibit marriage between a Buddhist woman and a man of another faith, unless he ‘converts’ to Buddhism (I am not at all clear of how one ‘converts’ to Buddhism’).

The laws are being proposed on the premise that Buddhism is under threat from other religions. The ‘Interfaith Marriage Act’ is one of the ‘National Race and Religion Protection Bills’ that have been proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’ (OPNRR), headed by Ashin Tilawka Biwuntha. It is clear from the context of the monastic debate that the monks wish to prohibit marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men – it is then highly discriminatory with undertones of racism and Islamophobia.

There are a few obvious points that should be made about these proposed laws. Buddhism is a monastic tradition – it usually has little concern with secular affairs – and this historically most definitely includes marriage. It is commonplace in Buddhism to observe that there are no Buddhist marriage ceremonies. The monastics might in some ways ‘bless’ a couple after a secular marriage ceremony, and modern Buddhists might have replicated marriage ceremonies from other religions, but it can be stated quite categorically that the Buddhist monastic is not concerned with any type of marriage ceremony. It is this that makes the Burmese monastic debate such an odd phenomenon.

It needs to be stated that, traditionally, the Buddhist monastic is concerned with three things. First, the notion that all actions have consequences; that these actions are causing us to be reborn in an endless cycle of rebirths; and that, given the opportune conditions, the person should strive to end this cycle of rebirths which is pervaded by suffering. In short the monastic is concerned with Karma, Saṃsāra and Nibbāna.

What then is the concern of the monastic with laws prohibiting marriage between different religions? It seems to me that these are the questions that need to be asked by those protesting against the bills proposed by ‘Organisation for Protection of National Race and Religion’. It is reported that some of the monks are disagreeing with various organisations who dare opposed to the Interfaith Marriage Bill, calling overseas NGO’s ‘traitors‘ for their opposition. Clearly, this secular rhetoric is startling in that monastics are debating issues outside of their usual supramundane narrative of traditional Buddhist discourse. The mundane world (lokiya), of secular affairs has become disjointed and mixed with the supramundane world (lokuttara) of Buddhist preaching.