The August 2017 attacks by al-Yaqin or Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), which the Myanmar government has designated a terrorist organisation, have pushed Rakhine state into renewed crisis. They also are being used by radical Buddhist nationalists in the rest of the country to promote their agenda. While dynamics at play in Rakhine are mostly driven by local fears and grievances, the current crisis has led to a broader spike in anti-Muslim sentiment, raising anew the spectre of communal violence across the country that could imperil the country’s transition.
Since the start of the political liberalisation in 2011, Myanmar has been troubled by an upsurge in extreme Buddhist nationalism, anti-Muslim hate speech and deadly communal violence, not only in Rakhine state but across the country. The most prominent nationalist organisation is the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (commonly referred to by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha), made up of monks, nuns and laypeople. The government has focused considerable effort on curtailing this group and pushing the top Buddhist authority in Myanmar to ban it. Yet these efforts have been largely ineffective at weakening the appeal of nationalist narratives and organisations, and have probably even enhanced them. However uncomfortable it may be, a more nuanced understanding of the sources of social support for MaBaTha, as opposed to simplistic one-dimensional portrayals, is vital if the government and Myanmar’s international partners are to find effective ways to address the challenges posed by radical nationalism and reduce risks of violence.
The nature of MaBaTha and the extent of its popularity are widely misunderstood, including by the government. Far from being an organisation narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, it sees itself – and is viewed by many of its supporters – as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable.
While State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party command enormous respect and support in the political realm, there is a widespread nationalist perception that they have a generally Western liberal outlook that privileges minority rights and diversity (including religious diversity) over protection of the Buddhist faith – notwithstanding the fact that many minorities feel that the government is not taking account of their concerns. Efforts by the government to crack down on MaBaTha have only amplified the perception that they are weak protectors of the faith. If the government makes good on its threat to declare MaBaTha an unlawful association, there will be severe, likely violent, reverberations across the country.
MaBaTha is led by widely-revered and charismatic monks who have far greater legitimacy on religious issues in the eyes of many Myanmar Buddhists than the government or state religious authorities. MaBaTha also appeals to a broad range of people, including those who oppose its forays into party politics or hate speech, through its engagement in a wide range of “good causes” at the community level – from Buddhist Sunday schools, social service and secular education provision to legal aid and disaster relief. Nowhere is this clearer than in the strong support for MaBaTha among nuns and numerous laywomen’s organisations – despite MaBaTha’s support for what many see as misogynistic objectives such as laws that restrict women’s right to marry whom they choose. For many – male and female – MaBaTha provides not only a powerful, well-funded channel for participation in community-support activities, but also a sense of belonging and direction in a context of rapid societal change and few jobs or other opportunities for youth.
In light of the realities of simmering intercommunal tensions and outbreaks of violence linked to hate speech and nationalist provocations, the stakes for the country are extremely high. Some prominent monks and laypeople within MaBaTha espouse extreme bigoted and anti-Muslim views, and incite or condone violence in the name of protecting race and religion. In a context of tense intercommunal relations, there is a real risk that these actions could contribute to major communal violence. The biggest threat may not be MaBaTha itself, but the dynamics it has created and individuals it has empowered that may be beyond its control.
While the government must continue to take robust action against hate speech, incitement and violence, it is unlikely that confrontation and legal action will be effective in dealing with the broader phenomenon of Buddhist nationalism and groups such as MaBaTha. Indeed, these arguably may play to their advantage, given the wide resonance of MaBaTha narratives combined with the popularity of the community services provided under its banner.
In Myanmar’s new, more democratic era, the debate over the proper place of Buddhism, and the role of political leadership in protecting it, is being recast. Given the deep, mutually legitimising historical relationship between the state and the clergy, this debate, which is unlikely to end soon, cannot be seen only in terms of politics and nationalism, divorced from moral and spiritual issues. The government should take control of the narrative by reframing, on its terms, the place of Buddhism in a more democratic context and setting out its own positive vision.
In parallel, it should address the underlying grievances that lead people to support exclusionary nationalist narratives, which are partly economic. A much more visible focus on the economy would give people confidence that the government is prioritising better opportunities and jobs and a more prosperous future for ordinary people. The more that people can feel they have a role to play in this, and the more channels they have to do so outside nationalist networks, the greater their sense of control over their destiny. International development actors must also recognise the diverse social role of monasteries and nunneries, including those aligned with or sympathetic to MaBaTha, and find ways to positively influence their activities and promote credible alternative channels to problematic nationalist networks.
Yangon/Brussels, 5 September 2017
Rising Buddhist nationalism and anti-Muslim violence in Myanmar since the start of the political transition in 2011 has prompted domestic and international concern. The largest Buddhist nationalist organisation, the Association for Protection of Race and Religion (known by its Burmese-language acronym, MaBaTha) enjoys widespread grassroots support despite government-led attempts to undermine its religious authority. Forays into party politics are controversial – even within MaBaTha – but its view that Buddhism is under threat is widely shared among Myanmar Buddhists. Many members and supporters also see the organisation as primarily focused on protection and promotion of Buddhism and provision of social services, complicating government efforts to ban or weaken MaBaTha.
This report provides a detailed and nuanced understanding of the activities of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups as well as of the motivations and views of its members and supporters. Such understanding is indispensable in formulating effective policy responses.
The report is based on six months of detailed research and interviews in 2017, including: interviews with high ranking members of MaBaTha and other nationalist groups; Buddhist monks and nuns who support MaBaTha; women’s groups that support MaBaTha; high ranking members of the National League for Democracy party; and civil society and human rights activists. The research also draws on Crisis Group observations of MaBaTha events and outreach activities, including rallies, dispute resolution activities, civic education, and gathering of signatures for petitions. Relevant academic and policy research has been reviewed, particularly where it draws on in-country interviews. Most of the primary interviews were conducted in the Burmese language; many of these were of female religious nationalists interviewed by female researchers. Interviews were carried out in both upper and lower parts of central Myanmar, as well as in Kayin state.
The focus on female religious nationalists was deliberate, intended to shed light on an aspect of nationalism in Myanmar that is rarely studied or discussed, and because understanding the motivations and views of female nationalists challenges assumptions commonly-held domestically and internationally about Buddhist nationalism in the country.
The report describes the rationales members have for their participation in MaBaTha and its activities. Whether or not these are cogent or fact-based, they are genuinely felt and therefore important to understand to design effective policy responses. The report does not provide a definitive account of MaBaTha membership, structure or activities, given the fluid nature of the organisation and ongoing changes in response to recent government and religious pressure. It also does not analyse the August 2017 attacks in Rakhine state by the militant group known as al-Yaqin or the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) and the military’s response, which continued at the time of publication. This serious episode and its implications will be explored in a report to be published in the fall of 2017.
II.Buddhist Nationalism in Myanmar and the Region
A.Historical Roots in Myanmar
1.Kingdom and monarchy
Rising religious nationalism is a global phenomenon, not unique to Myanmar.Although it often surprises and disheartens educated elites and local political activists, it can be seen in many democratic and democratising countries, including Myanmar’s neighbouring Buddhist countries. For instance, Thailand’s military junta has positioned itself as the defender of the faith to enhance its authority, and some of Sri Lanka’s major parties have co-opted religious nationalism to bolster their perceived legitimacy among the Sinhalese majority.
The expression of religious nationalist views in Myanmar today is informed by the country’s historical legacy, particularly colonisation, regional demographic shifts and contemporary global politics. To many of the Burmese Buddhist majority, these factors suggest that the country’s religious and cultural well-being is at risk and that the current government is either unable or unwilling to address the sources of threat. There is also a strong millenarian current in Theravada Buddhism that the religion will inevitably decline and disappear, combined with a traditional worldview that sees the health of the religion and the strength of the polity as interdependent. This creates an imperati
ve for members of the monastic community to lead pious and patriotic laymen and women in a campaign of “virtuous defence”.
The relationship between the Sangha (the community of Buddhist monks) and state is one that many in Myanmar believe should be symbiotic. This does not mean that the state and the Sangha are expected to be allied. Rather, the secular authority may move to purge the Sangha if they become corrupted in some way, and the Sangha might similarly intervene in secular affairs if the government becomes ineffective, weak or abusive. This constant, delicate negotiation, and the deeply-rooted historical role of Buddhism in legitimising rulers and as a key pillar of the Myanmar state significantly complicate any attempts by the current government to challenge Buddhist nationalist organisations widely seen as protecting and promoting the faith. Attempts to undermine groups like MaBaTha on the basis that monks should not act politically largely miss the point. Most Myanmar Buddhists would prefer that monks not engage in secular, political affairs, but many see their doing so as a reflection of the government’s failings – not necessarily the Sangha’s.
2.British colonial period and independence
The British conquest was a political and moral shock to Burmese society. The colonial state withdrew traditional state support for monasteries and disrupted village economies, another source of regular, sizeable donations, compounding the monasteries’ unprecedented struggles to finance their daily activities. Monastic communities were acutely affected by the period of instability and uncertainty between the British capture of lower Burma in 1852 and upper Burma in 1885, with the subsequent fall of the monarchy in Mandalay, ending a lineage of royal Buddhist patronage dating back more than a thousand years.
The British move to divorce state administration from religion was seen by many Burmese Buddhists as a further sign that the teachings of the Buddha were in decline. This spurred laymen and women into action, with particular efforts to reinforce shared religious and cultural values of good manners and proper conduct. While there was some focus on the ways in which European customs actively insulted Buddhism (wearing shoes at pagodas quickly became a sensitive issue), far greater anxiety was expressed over the loss of religious and cultural education and discipline in Burmese Buddhist society: “[Boys] abandoned studying in the monasteries to attend government schools in hopes of a lucrative career as a clerk. The monks no longer held the same respect”.
Most colonial government positions were filled by imported Indian bureaucrats – Hindus and Muslims – rather than local elites. Indian businessmen also came to dominate some sectors of the economy, and the Chettiar moneylenders (who were Hindu) were particularly despised for taking over vast tracts of land – including some 25 per cent of agricultural land in lower Burma – when farmers were unable to service their debts during the Great Depression. The resulting economic and power disparities and demographic shifts created enormous tensions between Burmese and Indians that came to a head in 1930 and again in 1938.
The 1938 violence had a particular religious dimension. One of the triggers was a book published by an Indian Muslim author, reprinted with an attachment containing “highly disparaging references to Buddhism”. It is unclear whether religious or political provocateurs added this attachment, but it further inflamed communal and religious tensions. Demonstrators including monks demanded that the author be punished; if not, they threatened to treat Muslims as “enemy number one” and take action to “bring about the extermination of Muslims and the extinction of their religion and language”.
Shortly after, The Sun newspaper published an inflammatory letter by a Buddhist monk recounting the sufferings of Burmese women married to Muslims, and noting that under customary law their children lost not only their religion but also their ethnic identity. Rumours spread that Muslims were preparing to destroy the revered Sule and Shwedagon pagodas, prompting 1,500 monks from the All Burma Council of Young Monks to attack Muslims and loot and burn their shops in the markets. Some monasteries became armed sanctuaries and storage space for loot, contrary to monastic rules. More than 4,000 people were arrested, including monks accused of violence, arson and murder.
Anti-colonial movements often focused on religious and civic education rather than outright political mobilisation. The emergence of “Dhamma Schools” (Buddhist Sunday schools), currently a major focus of MaBaTha, can be traced to this period as part of an effort to stem both the loss of Buddhist culture and growing religious antipathy among youth. The Buddhist Young Men’s Association became a focus for efforts to preserve Buddhist Burmese culture under British rule and eventually factionalised over a disagreement about whether or not to participate in politics more explicitly. Even today, secular schools teach “civic education” based heavily on Buddhist precepts and values, rather than governance and rule of law. When a local NGO recently published a series of civic education textbooks that promoted religious literacy and included information on the basic tenets of four major faiths (including Buddhism), it prompted a nationalist outcry with claims it was an attempt at “Islamisation” and “religious colonialism in the name of education” followed by demands that children should be taught only about Buddhism.
3.Patriotism and religion
At the end of the First World War, anti-colonial leaders established Wunthanu (patriotic) organisations throughout the country to mobilise the largely uneducated rural population in support of the nationalist movement. The emphasis on restoring traditional Buddhist values struck a chord with many village women who had lost their occupations and legal rights under colonial rule.
In November 1919, an elite women’s patriotic organisation, Wunthanu Konmari, was established with around 300 members, led by the wives and female relatives of prominent male nationalists as well as women entrepreneurs. Colonial authorities were concerned about women’s involvement in the Wunthanu movement, fearing that it would further boost nationalist sentiment. In 1923, the governor of Burma reportedly stated that “the influence of women on politics in many countries has made for nationalism, and so far as I can gather it is making for it in Burma”.Since education was a prerequisite for women’s enfranchisement, nationalist leaders became some of the strongest advocates for female education.
The way that colonial Burma was governed further solidified the role of Buddhism in the national identity. In particular, the British decision to implement indirect rule in ethnic minority border areas – leaving them under their own local chieftains – meant that minority communities were administratively separated from the central Burman state. The Burmese saw this as a way both to undermine the central state and promote the formation of separate ethnic identities, including non-Buddhist ones. The independence movement thus worked to unite the country under a shared (and Burmanised) culture that was heavily influenced by Buddhist values, though it favoured more revolutionary language.
Resistance to the imposition of a Burman-Buddhist identity on a diverse country has been one of the drivers of the seven-decade civil war. Prime Minister Nu’s abortive attempts in the early 1960s to designate Buddhism as the state religion were divisive, and a factor behind the Kachin rebellion. They also drew criticism from Muslim and Christian religious leaders. The 2008 constitution treads a careful line, recognising the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens” (section 361) while also acknowledging that “Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism” have adherents in the country (section 362). There is a Ministry of Religious Affairs, established in 1948, which mainly deals with Buddhist affairs.
1.Emergence of nationalism and violence
Since the start of the political transition in 2011, Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar has become significantly more visible. As authoritarian controls were lifted after years of repression, deep-seated grievances emerged into the open, and new freedoms of expression allowed individuals and the media to give voice to these grievances in ways that were not possible before. Newly available telecommunications combined with access to social media accelerated the spread of nationalist narratives, rumours (often of sexual violence perpetrated by Muslims against Buddhist women) and hate speech. A wave of anti-Muslim violence swept across the country starting in June 2012.
The question of what sustains these dynamics, and the particular focus on Islam, is more complex. Several factors contribute to a pervasive sense of existential angst shared by Myanmar’s Buddhist majority, including demographic fears, economic and cultural anxieties, and current regional dynamics.
2.Perceived demographic and religious threats
Rakhine has long been the interface between Buddhist and Muslim Asia. There is a strong belief in Rakhine state and across Myanmar that if Buddhists in Rakhine had not protected the “Western Gate” of the country and held fast against demographic pressure from Muslim Bengal, then Myanmar and the rest of Buddhist South East Asia would have become Muslim long ago. Whether or not this claim is plausible, it is taken as true by many in Myanmar, driving fears of illegal immigration and demands that the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine continue to be denied recognition and rights. This has been extended more broadly to include all Muslims in Myanmar, who are increasingly seen as interlopers – even those from recognised ethnic groups such as the Kaman. Thus, for example, none of the major parties fielded a single Muslim candidate in the 2015 elections, and most Muslim voters were disenfranchised.
But nationalist narratives are not focused only on Rakhine. Many religious nationalists cite a mix of hyper-local incidents, such as conflicts over land, animal slaughter, or domestic abuse in addition to incidents such as the brutal rape and murder of a Muslim woman by Muslim men in Rakhine state in 2012, to justify their positions. Beyond demographic fears over the “Western Gate”, other oft-repeated narratives claim that Muslims across Myanmar are hoarding capital, buying up real-estate in town centres, using their wealth to woo and marry Buddhist women, then forcing their wives and children to convert to Islam through physical or economic pressure. Muslims often are described as a “cancer within”, and many Burman Buddhists with religious nationalist leanings agree that “a race does not face extinction by being swallowed into the earth, but from being swallowed up by another race”, an old Myanmar saying which is also the motto of the immigration ministry. Other nationalists feel that unlike other faiths, Muslims are unwilling to reciprocate the religious freedoms they demand, and therefore are a threat to Buddhism. These fears are strongly felt, notwithstanding that Muslims are in a small minority in Myanmar as a whole, comprising perhaps 4 per cent of the population, while Buddhists are 88 per cent and Christians 6 per cent.
The debate over whether the current Myanmar government is able to provide for the spiritual needs of the Buddhist polity primarily hinges on whether the government is seen as willing to institutionalise the “protection” of Buddhism and on its perceived weakness (or even complicity) in the face of an “Islamic threat”.Moves to address human rights issues are seen by many religious nationalists as tantamount to enabling Islamic encroachment. This means that international and domestic views around the status and treatment of Muslims (and the Rohingya in particular) are in many ways irreconcilable. Government policy statements that attempt to calm nationalist agitation by emphasising the importance of democratic pluralism are read by many Burman Buddhists as ceding cultural and political power to a belligerent religious minority that would not hesitate to enshrine its own religious views into law if given the opportunity.
3.Economic and cultural anxieties
The economic networks that developed as a result of colonial-era immigration from South Asia have persisted in the form of a business class of traders with strong cross-border ties. There is a common perception that these communities only do business with each other, sharing access to markets and capital only within their own faith communities; the 969 boycott movement against Muslim businesses (see section III.A) was a direct response to this. Buddhist nationalists express similar concerns regarding the Chinese business community, particularly in Mandalay and Taunggyi.
The combination of nationalist concerns over Buddhist religious and cultural education, economic protectionism and inter-religious marriage means that groups like MaBaTha focus not only on perceived slights to their religion and religious community, but also on behaviours Buddhists see as incompatible with a safe, peaceful society. This helps explain their widespread support for the package of “protection of race and religion laws” adopted in 2015 (see section III.B below). Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar is not just about promoting the faith, but also protecting the culture. This makes it impossible to draw a clear distinction between political and non-political nationalist activism.
In part, nationalist views reflect a growing awareness in Myanmar of regional and global dynamics. For example, the notion that some Buddhist monks in southern Thailand must engage in armed struggle against Muslim militants is highly resonant, and something that people living in Myanmar’s south-eastern borderlands in particular are aware of through trade and migration. Female religious nationalists in Kayin state were resolute in their belief that it was the lay community’s role to ensure that monks were protected from ever having to take on such a role – and that use of force was undesirable, but not inherently problematic to the faith, in cases of self-defence.
Religious exchanges with Sri Lanka – and with the Buddhist nationalist group Bodu Bala Sena in particular – also have reinforced nationalist narratives and fears of a global Islamist terrorist threat, as well as acceptance of the concept of defensive violence. There are echoes of Sinhalese characterisations of the “Tamil threat” in Myanmar nationalist beliefs that the Muslim minority is the real aggressor given the nature and growth of global Islam. In Sri Lanka today, Bodu Bala Sena has shifted focus from the Tamil threat to that of global Islam, with worrying attempts to build anti-Muslim alliances with nationalist groups in the region. Buddhist women, particularly nuns, who travel to Sri Lanka for religious education appear more likely to accept or encourage the direct participation of Buddhist monks in politics, and cite Sri Lankan history as doctrinal justification for the use of defensive violence.
The notion that Islam threatens Buddhism around the region appears frequently in religious nationalist materials in Myanmar. The Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan in 2001 is often cited as an example of Muslim cruelty, violence and intolerance; the Taliban’s 2007 attacks on Buddhist relics and ancient university grounds in Pakistan are also sometimes referenced.
The idea that Buddhism is an inherently peaceful and non-proselytising religion, and therefore susceptible to oppression by more aggressive faiths, is a recurrent theme across Myanmar. The feeling that Islam is especially pernicious, given the purported tendency to enact Islamic law once a majority is achieved, frustrates Buddhists who believe that their faith has suffered for its tolerance of other religions. This, together with the perception that Islam is inherently violent, is a potent driver of contemporary Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar. As far afield as Loikaw, the capital of remote Kayah state, young people showed images of Islamic State beheadings on their mobile phones to explain their fears, specifically in relation to National League for Democracy (NLD) government leadership and its failure to tackle a perceived Muslim threat.
III.The Rise of MaBaTha
A.Origins of the Organisation
The recent resurgence of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar was spearheaded in part by the “969” movement, which first became prominent in the southern city of Mawlamyine in 2011. 969 is numerological shorthand for the special attributes of Buddha and his teachings and a riposte to the number “786”, a folk Islam representation of the Basmala long used by Muslims in Myanmar and elsewhere to identify halal restaurants and Muslim-owned shops. The 969 movement was led by prominent monks including Ashin Wirathu and Ashin Wimala and was particularly vocal in its extremist rhetoric, making claims of a Muslim plot to take over the country and of schemes to pay Muslims for marrying and converting Buddhist women. These dire warnings combined with a simple message to the faithful to “buy Buddhist” resonated strongly and were spread widely in the country through DVDs and 969 stickers. Yet the movement remained decentralised, with no infrastructure beyond the monastic economies of individual member monks.
Wirathu had begun preaching in 2001 about the rising threat presented by Islam and was arrested two years later and sentenced to 25 years in jail for inciting deadly violence in his home town of Kyaukse by distributing inflammatory anti-Muslim pamphlets; he was freed in 2011 as part of a broad amnesty by then-President Thein Sein. He and the 969 movement revived old prejudices: a British colonial inquiry into the 1938 riots noted that “one of the major sources of anxiety in the minds of a great number of Burmese was the question of the marriage of their womenfolk with foreigners in general and with Indians in particular”.
In late-2013, the 969 movement was effectively banned by the Sangha Council, the government-appointed body of monks that oversees and regulates the Buddhist clergy. In the announcement, the Sangha Council said nothing about links between the 969 movement’s inflammatory anti-Muslim rhetoric and subsequent outbreaks of deadly violence, but focused on the movement’s unauthorised use of Buddhist symbolism. This was not an outright dismissal of the group’s ideology, but rather reflected the Sangha Council’s frustration with the 969 movement’s lobbying for the enactment of the protection of race and religion laws (see below) – not because the council considered the laws unnecessary or inappropriate, but rather because the protection and promotion of religion comes under the remit of the Sangha Council and the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Members of the 969 movement rejected not only the legitimacy of the ban, but of the Sangha Council in general, which they stated was formed by the previous military regime to control the monkhood, and which they saw as serving the interests of the government not the faith. Such views are widely held in Myanmar, though MaBaTha’s highest-ranking monks tell members that disparaging the Sangha Council is bad karma.
These actions against the 969 movement prompted it to evolve into the somewhat more formal structure of MaBaTha. Though founded a few months earlier in June 2013, MaBaTha was not particularly prominent until January 2014, when its upper Myanmar branch was established in Mandalay. Its founding monks then stated publicly that the organisation was intended not only to support the 969 movement’s ideology, but also to rein in outspoken “younger monks” (including Wirathu) who were prompting domestic and international criticism. In addition, MaBaTha’s structure was specifically designed to give official roles to laymen and women, which in turn created ambiguity about the Sangha Council’s jurisdiction over the group. MaBaTha immediately picked up where the 969 movement had left off, rallying for the adoption of the race and religion laws and extending awareness of nationalist ideology – and the MaBaTha brand – far into rural and remote parts of the country, and making it by far the most prominent and nationally-known Buddhist nationalist group.
B.Protection of Race and Religion Laws
After a huge lobbying effort made them a significant electoral issue, the four laws were enacted in May and August 2015, in the lead-up to the November 2015 elections. The laws are as follows:
The Population Control Law (May 2015) gives the government the power to implement (non-coercive) population control measures in areas designated by the president with high population density, growth, maternal and child mortality, poverty or food insecurity. No such areas have been designated, but the provisions would appear to apply particularly to Muslim-majority northern Rakhine state where coercive local orders that limited Muslim couples to two children have been in place in the past.
The Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law (August 2015) provides that any marriage of a Buddhist woman to a non-Buddhist man requires an application to be submitted to the township registrar, who will display it publicly for fourteen days. After that time, the marriage can be approved, provided no objection has been lodged on the basis that the parties are not of age or sound mind or that there has been coercion. An official publicly-accessible registry of such marriages is to be kept. The non-Buddhist man must allow the wife to freely follow her Buddhist faith, not attempt to convert her and allow any children to freely follow the religion of their choice. He must not insult Buddhism in any way. If the non-Buddhist man violates any provision, he is liable to three years imprisonment or a fine and forfeiture of joint property and custody of children. The law supersedes the 1954 Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage and Succession Act, from which it differs in only a few provisions, but which had fallen into disuse.
The Religious Conversion Law (August 2015) provides that a person wanting to convert to another religion must be eighteen years old, convert voluntarily and apply to a township Religious Conversion Scrutinising and Registration Board for permission. The person shall be interviewed by the board to ascertain whether he or she has a genuine belief in the religion as well as knowledge of its marriage, divorce, division of property and inheritance practices.
The Monogamy Law (August 2015) makes it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse or to live with an unmarried partner who is not a spouse or to engage in marital infidelity. There is no provision for bail and the penalty is up to seven years imprisonment. While the law was championed by nationalists citing polygamous practices in Muslim communities, most cases under the law have been brought by Buddhist women against unfaithful husbands.
The laws drew considerable international attention, as they appeared to have discriminatory intent and to be targeted at Muslims, potentially violating not only Myanmar’s constitutional provisions on religious freedom and non-discrimination, but also