01/22/2014, 00.00
MYANMAR

For Archbishop of Yangon, marriage, conversion and the vote are inviolable human rights

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Archbishop Bo stresses the importance of civil rights, the basis of a democratic society. Marriage must be free from coercion and open to people of different faiths. The right to convert and the right of the religious leaders, be they Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu, to vote are equally crucial. An interfaith meeting was recently held in Yangon on the topic of 'social harmony'.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - Marriage, conversion to a religion or faith other than that of one's birth and the right to vote, even for religious leaders, be they Buddhist, Christian, Hindu or Muslim, are inviolable human and political rights, Mgr Charles Bo, archbishop of Yangon, told AsiaNews as he strongly emphasised the value and importance of civil rights in a democratic society.

Less than a week after fresh sectarian violence broke out in the west of the country, the leaders of Myanmar's major religions met in the country's economic capital to discuss 'The religious roots of social harmony'.

About a hundred people took part in the conference, including U Wirathu, leader of the controversial '969 Movement', accused by many critics of fomenting hatred against the Muslim minority and sowing divisions in the country.

At a time of deep divisions, but also of significant attempts to rebuild it, bringing together in a harmonious way its different components, the archbishop of Yangon lists three essential issues for real peace: marriage, freedom of worship and the right to vote.

"On the subject of marriage, every man and woman should be free to marry people of any religion," Mgr Bo said.

Typically in Burmese culture, young people try to meet the expectations of their parents," the prelate explained. However, this should not affect their choice of a spouse because "no one, not even parents, can prevent or force" their children into an unwanted union.

"Religious leaders have a duty to act as a guide to couples and perform the service according to the faith of each," he added.

In the case of mixed marriages, religious leaders should make the necessary "joint efforts" to celebrate the service in accordance with the rituals of both religions.

On the issue of conversion, it ought to be a "free decision" by the people involved, the prelate said. "No one can force another to change his religion," he explained, "just as everyone should feel absolutely free to convert or remain in the religion to which they belong,"

This also applies to those who "do not profess any religion or are openly atheist".

Lastly, on the issue of the right to vote, this should apply to "every citizen." And in Myanmar, this means that "all religious leaders should have the opportunity to vote," Mgr Bo noted, like "in many other parts of the world."

Buddhist monks and nuns, Christian bishops, priests and Muslim imams "should be entitled to vote" because, in addition to being the spiritual leaders and representatives of specific faiths, they are also citizens.

Myanmar is a deeply divided nation, especially between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority.

The latest episodes of violence have occurred in the western state of Rakhine where an attack was reported on a Muslim village.

Meanwhile, a group of monks that launched a campaign in favour of a law that would restrict mixed marriages is continuing to push for it to be adopted by parliament.

Such groups oppose integration and harmony in a country with many ethnic and religious minorities. However, the country's development depends on the coexistence of its various components.

Since June 2012, the western state of Rakhine has been the scene of violent clashes between Burmese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims (who number about 800,000 across Myanmar), which left at least 200 people dead and 250,000 displaced.

For US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the authorities are pursuing a policy of "ethnic cleansing" in the area.

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