09/10/2015, 00.00
MYANMAR
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For Card Bo, polygamy and conversion laws threaten Myanmar’s future

by Francis Khoo Thwe
For the archbishop of Yangon, national unity is threatened by anti-Muslim legislation sponsored by the country’s Buddhist extremists. The real enemy is the “religion of poverty,” which affects 30 per cent of the population, 70 per cent in some states. Only working together can give Myanmar hope for the future.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – The laws on polygamy and conversions strongly promoted by Myanmar’s Buddhist extremists (and others) are a threat to hope in a country that is united, democratic and modern, this according to Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon.

The prelate made his thoughts known in a message to the people and the rulers of Myanmar, at a key moment in the country’s history, less than two months before general elections.

Last month, in the appeal sent to AsiaNews, the cardinal said that parliament, under pressure from religious elites, had approved four " black laws” (signed by President Thein Sein) at a time when “thousands of men and women were struggling against unprecedented floods.”

These laws are not the work of the country’s elected representatives, but are the brainchild of extra-parliamentary groups that are threatening democracy and sowing hate and division.

Similar efforts in other parts of the world, like Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, have had "disastrous consequences" for the people.

For the cardinal, Myanmar authorities took steps that, according to activists and experts, affect the rights and traditions of the country’s Muslim minority (5 per cent of the population).

The latest black law is a ban on polygamy, adopted under pressure from Buddhist extremists who have spearheaded an anti-Islamic campaign across the country.

The main player is the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha,* whose goal is to defence the Burmese “race and religion”.

As part of this, they successfully lobbied the government to restrict conversions by adopting a law that subjects would-be converts to the approval of the authorities. The latter have rejected claims that the law targets Muslims.

Addressing the controversy, the cardinal stressed that the country is "once again" at a "crossroads, torn between hope and despair", after more than "fifty years of political oppression."

"Myanmar cannot go back once more to the path of permanent conflict,” the prelate said. “Fifty years of agony are enough. We need peace. We need reconciliation. We need a shared identity and trust, as citizens of a nation that nurtures hope. "

According to the archbishop of Yangon, the black laws "appear to have sounded the death knell" for hope of change, rebirth, unity and democracy. Hence, at such a challenging time, people should "be on guard against these elements" whose job seems to be to "institutionalise extremist ideologies."

The future belongs to "unity in diversity" because "together we can win" and divisions lead to a "sinister future."

Citing the ancient teachings of Buddha and Buddhism about peace, mercy, and compassion, which "have no room for hatred," Card Bo noted that "Every effort to distort the image of pristine Buddhism and his message of universal love must be fought by every member of our nation. Hate narratives in the name of religion are an offense to the teachings of the Great Master.”

These four laws "are the result of deep-seated hate," Card Bo said. For this reason, lawmakers must change them to avert the danger "of other decades of conflict".

Finally, for the archbishop, the real challenge for the country’s citizens, religious leaders and politicians lies elsewhere.

The greatest danger, he warns, is not religious conversion, but "poverty, which is the common religion of the majority of people. Thirty per cent of our people are poor and in Rakhine [home to the Rohingya] and Chin states the rate is 70 per cent."

"As a nation,” the prelate said, “real conversion is needed for the 30 per cent of our people who live under the oppressive religion of poverty".

* The full name of the group has been variously translated into English as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, or the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion.

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