YANGON – For decades, Myint Soe’s family has been able to practice freedom of religion in Myanmar, with neighbors reveling in the family’s “half-Muslim, half-Buddhist” status.
But Myint, 58 years old, admits that when he married his Buddhist wife 33 years ago, some of his family did raise objection.
“Some, especially my grandparents, strongly criticized me,” he tells Anadolu Agency from his small house in Yangon’s central rail station compound.
“It was because I didn’t ask my wife to convert to Islam,” the government worker recalls. “But why would I? Even though I’m from a poor and uneducated background, I believe someone’s faith should not be controlled.”
Myint’s wife, 58-year-old Khin Shwe, tells Anadolu Agency that she had doubts about her husband at first as her parents warned her that she would be forced to convert to Islam soon after the marriage.
“We’ve had no such issues so far,” says Khin. “He even sometimes helps me donate rice to monks on the daily alms-round.”
She adds that one of their sons has chosen to be a Muslim, while another two children — a boy and a girl — follow Buddhism.
“We told our children to choose religions freely, but suggest it is better to have a spouse of the same faith,” she says.
The Soes are an example of one of the many interfaith couples in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. But such unions are now banned under a new law proposed by a group of radical Buddhist monks tied to a nationalist organization.
In June 2012, the Race and Religious Protection Organization — better known as Ma Ba Tha in Burmese — proposed a ban on “marriage of different religions” after state sponsored violence by Rakhine Buddhists on minority Rohingya Muslims broke out in western Arakan (Rakhine) state, and spread to other parts of the country.
According to rights organizations, the subsequent series of conflicts left around 300 people dead and thousands homeless — mostly persecuted Rohingya Muslim.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric from Ma Ba Tha — in particular from firebrand Mandalay monk Wirathu — has been seen as deliberately stoking the flames of religious hatred, with Wirathu blaming Muslims for such state sponsored conflicts, falsely accusing them of attempting to Islamize the country of 57 million people which is around 80 percent Buddhist.
According to the 1983 census, Muslims make up around 3.9 percent of the country.
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