By Manny Maung
03 March, 2014
Where are the women’s voices?
A proposal to ban inter-faith marriage in Myanmar has caused barely a murmur among the predominantly Buddhist population.
Draft legislation to ban marriage between Buddhist women and Muslim men was first announced in June 2013 after a conference of monks in Yangon addressed by the activist monk, the Venerable U Wirathu.
The proposal was rejected by religious leaders after it attracted condemnation from civil society and human rights groups.
Under the proposed "national race protection law", Buddhist women would be required to obtain permission from their parents and local officials if they wished to marry a Muslim.
In turn, Muslim men would have to change their faith and then provide proof of their conversion to local officials, or risk up to 10 years in prison. They could also have their property confiscated if they could not provide proof of having converted.
But later that month, after Time magazine featured an image of U Wirathu on its cover with the headline ‘The Face of Buddhist Terror’, the proposed legislation was redrafted.
Protesters marched in Yangon to denounce the Time report and by mid-July, U Wirathu said he had collected more than two million signatures on a petition supporting the new draft.
Since then, a third draft of the proposal has circulated among members of the Buddhist Sangha throughout the country.
At the behest of U Wirathu, about 10,000 monks held a conference in Mandalay in mid-January at which one of the decisions they supported was to continue pushing for a ban on marriage between Buddhist women and “non-Buddhist men”.
The revision, it appeared, now had more far-reaching terms.
The term "non-Buddhist men" was without definition, yet the change from the term "Muslim men" to "non-Buddhist men" resulted in barely a blip on the public radar.
In a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma on July 17, 2013, a monk responded to opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's criticism that the law violated women's liberties, by saying: "This law doesn't say one cannot have inter-faith marriage and so in no way violates human rights."
After the monk's conference in Mandalay, a report by The Irrawaddy on January 16 quoted one of the participants, the Venerable U Eainda Sakka Biwunta, as insisting that they were not “singling out any particular faith”.
The report quoted U Eainda Sakka Biwunta as saying: "The marriage law is not only to protect Buddhists. Other religions will also have legal protection from this law as well."
Just how the law will provide legal protection to other religions is yet to be clarified.
Amid the concern expressed by human rights groups – and the one rebuttal from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi– there has been a resounding silence from women on the issue.
The problem, said Ma Shwe Shwe Sein from the Gender Equality Network, is that women who do not support a blanket ban on inter-faith marriage are reluctant to discuss the issue publicly because they do not want to attract community ire or disapproval.
In a country where the national identity is inextricably linked to the Buddhist faith, it is difficult to be a voice of dissent on the issue, particularly as a woman.
The culture in Myanmar also encourages women to remain submissive and accept decisions that are made on behalf of them - often by men. This behaviour is accepted in private life and in public.
Women who do speak up publicly can expect to be strongly criticized, including by other women.
Those who support an inter-faith marriage ban believe they need to speak for other Myanmar women because they lack the intelligence to know what is best for them.
In an interview with this reporter on July 17, 2013, U Maung Maung from the Theravada Dharma Network, a support group of the 969 movement, said: "The law is necessary because our Buddhist women are not intelligent or educated enough to protect themselves."
Yet, educated women said they felt they were purposely being left uninformed.
In Yangon and Mandalay, where newspapers and internet access is widely available, women's advocates said not enough information had been released. In addition, there is a poor flow of information to the rural areas which are home to most of the population.
Under such circumstances, it would be difficult for anyone to make a well-informed decision.
"The proposal itself is unclear about important details, but generally it is unconstitutional. For a true democracy, those who the legislation affects should be consulted," Ma Shwe Shwe Sein said.
"I am Buddhist woman, but such intolerance is not in line with my religion and I cannot support it," she said. "We should be creating more opportunities for women, not limiting them."
Ma Shwe Shwe Sein’s comments are a rare display of public discontent by a member of the Buddhist community and in speaking out, she has put herself at risk of repercussions.
However, Ma Shwe Shwe Sein said she needed to express an opinion about something she felt was fundamentally wrong.
"No one should have the right to force people into doing this," she said.
But other women were only comfortable about discussing the issue under the cover of anonymity.
They included a 32-year old mother of two, who said that while she did not particularly like Muslims, she did not support the draft because she believed that neither the government nor a religion had the right to say whom could marry whom.
She said the argument over inter-faith marriage was a distraction from more important issues, such as constitutional reform.
Asked if members of her family supported the draft legislation, she said yes.
Her 43-year old aunt, a public servant, supported the idea of Buddhists only being able to marry Buddhists and could not understand why the draft law had generated controversy. A niece, 16, also agreed and said it "made sense" that Buddhist women married Buddhist men.
However, another family member – a 20-year-old man who attended university – said all individuals should have the right to decide for themselves who they marry. “It is a deeply personal decision,” he said.
Amyotha Hluttaw MP Daw Khin Wine Kyi (Yangon Region, National Democratic Force), who has offered to submit the draft legislation in parliament, says the proposal does not differ greatly from the 1954 Marriage Act, but offers more protection to women.
Daw Khin Wine Kyi dismissed criticism from human rights campaigners that a law banning inter-faith marriage could restrict women's rights
"Why should external people tell us what we want for our country?" she said.
"Their position is not fair. It is not that we are taking matters into our own hands at all – everything will need to be approved by the Hluttaw and the president himself."
Asked if women from a broad cross section of the community would be given the opportunity to comment on the draft before it is submitted to parliament, Daw Khin Wine Kyi said it was up to the government to make the right decisions on behalf of the country's citizens.
"We have to make decisions within our capacity and some don't have the capacity to make these types of decisions," she said.
Daw Khin Wine Kyi said that introducing new and relevant legislation was a necessary part of the democratic process.
There was a need for rules to which citizens could refer to guide their behaviour generally, she said. Asked if she agreed with a blanket ban on all interfaith marriages, Daw Khin Wine Kyi said the rule of law should protect people, not control them.
Support for ban on inter-faith marriage seems to be growing. U Wirathu said in January that a petition he had begun last year had more than three million signatures in favour of a ban.
One reason why the proposed ban has attracted support is the prejudice that has long existed among the indigenous population since the colonial era towards those whose ancestors came from the Indian subcontinent.
While the ultra-nationalist movement ostensibly wants to protect Buddhism, it is clearly willing to draw on prejudice – especially towards Muslims – to gain support for its stand.
The women who contributed to this report who were well educated and have access to information say they understand what is at stake but are unwilling to speak out for the time being.
Daw Khin Wine Kyi says she hopes to submit the final draft of the legislation to parliament next month.
This Article first appeared in the February 27, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.