Buddhist backlash against fear of 'love-jihad'

Dpa, 29 Jun 2014

YANGON, Myanmar -- Suzi's family has practiced freedom of religion for decades, including Muslims, Buddhists, and now even a Christian.

"We have no problem with different faiths. You can take any religion you like," she said, as she helped her mother-in-law to read the Quran in the small apartment in central Yangon, the former capital and largest city of Myanmar.

Born of Muslim parents, Suzi followed the faith until she converted to Buddhism at age of 20, when she married.

"My parents at the time did not even want to see me, but it was all OK some months later," the 51-year-old secondary school administrator recalled.

Her late husband was one of three children of a Buddhist man and his Muslim wife.

"I like this type of family very much and I made my mind to keep on practising this way with my children," she said.

Her daughter is a Muslim, while the two sons follow Buddhism, and one of them recently took a Christian wife.

"No one needs to convert religions," Suzi insisted.

That kind of tolerance and diversity is threatened now, by an anti-Muslim backlash among radical Buddhists led by activist monks.

Relations have been tense since a series of violent sectarian clashes in the western state of Rakhine, later spilling over into the eastern and central regions, that have left more than 200 people dead and hundreds of home and shops torched since 2012.

Buddhists make up about 80% of Myanmar's population, and xenophobia has been fuelled recently by fears that Muslim influence is growing.

Ma Ba Tha (the Organisation for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief), is a group of senior monks who are pressuring the government of President Thein Sein to enact legislation to outlaw interfaith marriages and religious conversion.

"We need to protect our Buddhist women from the Muslim love-jihad," said monk Wirathu, the firebrand leader of the 969 movement that preaches intolerance and urges boycotts of Muslim businesses.

He said government legislation is needed because Buddhism has no constraints on mixed marriages and does not require spousal conversion, unlike Islam.

"If we had these laws, we would have no need to argue about other religions, especially with Muslims," said the monk, who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in July 2013 as "the face of Buddhist terror."

According to latest census, conducted in 1983, Muslims constituted less than 10% of Myanmar's estimated 60 million people. But many people believe the numbers of Muslims have grown far beyond that proportion over the last three decades.

"We believe the Muslim population will be nearly 20% of country's population (in this year's census)," said Ko Ko Gyi, a veteran pro-democracy activist and member of the official commission investigating the violence in Rakhine.

But he cautioned against seeing race, religion or ethnicity as divisive.

"We should concentrate how to develop the country's business to raise living standards of our citizens," he said.

Ma Ba Tha said it would present 4 million signatures of people supporting the proposed legislation to the national parliament soon.

Its main goal is to have the state prevent Buddhist women from marrying Muslim men and converting to Islam.

The organisation claims that tens of thousands of such marriages have occurred over the past decade, although there are no reliable statistics.

Wanna Shwe, head of the Myanmar Islamic Religious Council in Yangon, rejected the proposed legislation as divisive and potentially dangerous.

"All religions, including good Buddhists, oppose these laws. Myanmar will be more divided between people of different religions if the laws are enacted," he said.

"They are no good for national harmony."

The Catholic Archbishop of Yangon, Monsignor Charles Bo, agreed that national laws regulating marriages would be counter-productive.

"Every man and woman should be free to marry people of any religion," he said.

"No one, not even parents, can prevent or force" their children into an unwanted union, the archbishop said.

The United Nations weighed in on Monday, saying the proposed law "appears partial to the interest of one particular group and simply propagates the spread of incitement of racial and religious hatred."

"State interferences into the right to change one's religion or belief are per se illegitimate and incompatible with international human rights standards," said Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion.

Suzi said she would wish to continue the practice of freedom of religion in the family.

"I want my grandchildren to have the same freedoms as we have had," she said.

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