Tensions are rising in Myanmar as proposed laws restricting religious freedom have been proposed. One of the laws would restrict inter-faith marriages, ensuring that the Buddhist state within the country remains ‘pure.’ The other laws, which focus on population control, include an ominous provision: people could only change their religion if approved by a panel of government officials.
These proposed laws have been part of increasing religious tensions that has been occurring for years in Myanmar. The country, which has a population of 61 million, is predominately Buddhist, with 80% of the population identifying as so.
However, it is the Muslim Rohingya minority (who make up about 4% of the population) that has come under attack. The government, who has been complicit in their subjugation, considers the Rohingya to be Bengali immigrants who have no place in society. Despite the fact that most Muslims arrived decades ago, most have been often denied citizenship and rights by the government.
For instance, the Rohingya minority, because they are considered ‘stateless’, are banned from working or getting married without special permission. They are also the only group within the country that are banned from having more than two children.
A number of attacks in recent years have led to a mass expulsion of Rohingya from Myanmar. About 250,000 refugees have made their way to neighboring countries in search of peace.
Sectarian fighting, which soon devolved into what has been described as ‘ethnic cleansing’ by some human rights agencies, began in 2012. Muslim businesses were marked and a slash and burn campaign was devised by hard line Buddhists.
In October 2013, a number of local Muslims, including a 94-year-old Muslim woman, were stabbed to death, while nearly 100 homes were burned to the ground.
Another attack in December of 2013 saw more than a dozen Muslims hacked to death in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Enraged Buddhist mobs had toured the Rakhine State, which is primarily Muslim, in previous months shouting from loudspeakers for the Muslims to leave.
It is amid this tension that these new laws are stirring controversy.
The monk who was in charge of drafting a number of these laws, named Dhammapiya, insists that they were created to help protect women. Women, he countered, have been forced to convert to Islam if they marry a Muslim man. And because of these amendments, such women will be able to keep their Buddhist identities.
However, this reasoning rings false for many activists within the region. “Religion is an individual decision,” said May Sabe Phyu, a woman’s rights activist. She also went on to decry this as false protection considering no women’s rights groups were consulted during the law’s creation. Rather, it was only the Buddhist majority that was considered.
At Genocide Watch, they detail the 8 steps of genocide. These include: Classification, Symbolization, Dehumanization, Organization, Polarization, Preparation, Extermination and Denial. Step five, polarization is defined as such:
“Extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda. Laws may forbid intermarriage or social interaction. Extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the center. Moderates from the perpetrators’ own group are most able to stop genocide, so are the first to be arrested and killed. Prevention may mean security protection for moderate leaders or assistance to human rights groups. Assets of extremists may be seized, and visas for international travel denied to them.”
It is clear Myanmar’s laws forbidding inter marriage and religious conversion are just one more government-approved step down the road to crimes against humanity. Furthermore, when governmental laws limit the humanity of a group, they become tacit endorsements for further violence against these communities, which means more trouble is likely on the horizon in Myanmar’s Rohingya community.