By David I Steinberg
A special commission in Myanmar is now drafting legislation that if passed would effectively limit the rights of certain minority groups. At the request of the speaker of the parliament, President Thein Sein earlier this month formed a commission charged with drafting legislation on two laws: one concerning restricting religious conversions and another on controlling population growth, Asia Times reported.
Although the official notification creating the commission does not mention religion, both laws are directed against the country’s minority Muslim community. The first will severely limit the conversion of Buddhist women to Islam and the second will restrict Muslim families to no more than two children.
A wide spectrum of Burmese society will be questioned “in a transparent manner” by the commission, while any proposed
The commission is the result of an intense anti-Muslim prejudice that has swept many areas of Myanmar. Spurred by some highly nationalistic Buddhist monks, petitions with well over a million signatures have circulated among the population calling for such legislation. Buddhist boycotts of Muslim-owned shops have also recently proliferated.
Anti-Muslim activities have resulted in riots in central Myanmar. There is a particularly intense feeling against the stateless Rohingya, referred to as “Bengalis” by the government, concentrated in the country’s western Rakhine State along the Bangladesh border. The persecuted Rohingya are perhaps the most deprived people in East Asia.
No issue is presently more politically explosive in Myanmar. Politicians of neither the government nor the opposition have specifically stood up for Muslim rights. This anti-Muslim sentiment did not emanate from the Arab uprisings in the Middle East, potential terrorism or other fears that have engulfed much of the West.
Rather, it is an expression of a deep-seated Burman Buddhist sense of the fragility and inundation of their culture in the wake of the three Anglo-Burmese wars of the 19th century, British colonialism, unrestricted immigration from neighboring India during that period, and the overwhelming nearby populations of China, India, and Bangladesh.
Former national leader General Ne Win in the 1960s prohibited legal abortions without government party approval to bolster the Burman population against overwhelming neighbors. Many foreign observers would dispute the frail nature of the Burman cultural tradition, which they regard as very strong and powerful, but this inchoate fear is pervasive.
The significance of Buddhist monks leading this campaign cannot be underestimated, as few, if any, in the Burman community can publicly dispute a monk’s announcement on an ostensibly religious issue. The Christian right wing fundamentalists in the United States pale in US political influence in comparison with the Burmese monkhood. Yet the 2008 constitution theoretically respects the right to practice other religions, subject to the usual caveats about national unity, morality, and public order.
Myanmar has progressed remarkably since the inauguration of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and installation of a quasi-civilian government in March 2011. The space between the state and individual has widened to a degree almost unimaginable in such a short period of time since the end of direct military rule.
Politics is open, censorship basically gone, freedom of assembly allowed, labor unions have been formed, and the beginnings of pluralism are apparent, witnessed in the frequent differences expressed between the executive and legislative branches. Still, problems remain between ethnic minority groups and the dominant Burman Buddhists. Glass ceilings are prevalent and opportunities lacking for both ethnic and religious minorities.
Many in the West are besotted with a romantic and erroneous impression of Buddhism – monks quietly meditating and seeking enlightenment in forest or jungle surroundings and an openness that has been lacking in Western religions. The Buddhists, after all, had no crusades and the Buddhist scriptures are indeed models of toleration and humaneness. But to interpret Asian history only on the basis of those documents would be like interpreting the history of Western Europe’s wars through the Sermon on the Mount.
Elements of the Buddhist sangha (clergy) in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Japan, and Korea have played political roles and sometimes engaged in politically inspired violence. The present situation of religious persecution in Myanmar is thus not new, but is disturbing because the attitudes undercut the very democratic reforms the government is undertaking.
They would also effectively restrict the rights of women – rights that have historically been one of Myanmar’s richest heritages. The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion or culture or anything that promotes feelings of “hatred, enmity, and discord” between racial or religious communities.
In its search for foreign examples, the newly created commission no doubt will explore China’s one child per family policy. However, even in China’s authoritarian state this policy did not apply to minority groups. There are several disturbing examples of quests for racial and religious purity in history, and none seem to have gone well.
The issue is further complicated by the forthcoming 2015 elections and the positioning of various leaders to win popular support by essentially condoning anti-Muslim sentiment. The insecurity of this transition period could intensify if the results of the 2014 census shows non-Buddhist populations have markedly expanded since the last national census was held in 1983.
The census results will require deft handling by the government and civil society to avoid further fueling of ethnic and religious tensions. Foreign observers can only hope that wise counsel will prevail and that the nationalism that was so important in securing Burmese independence and preserving its culture will not be corrupted by undemocratic social legislation and activities.
David I Steinberg is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Asian Studies, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, and a Visiting Scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.