By Kyaw Ye Lynn
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 communal violence between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims broke out in western 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 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 communal conflicts, 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, however Ma Ba Tha has claimed that the Muslim population has been quickly increasing and now makes up a large percentage.
“[Even though] Muslims here are seen as a minority, I believe the Muslim population is now at least 20 percent of the country,” Buddhist monk Parmaukkha -- Ma Ba Tha’s senior leader -- told Anadolu Agency earlier this month.
“They have been trying to Islamize the country since before Than Shwe’s military regime,” Parmaukkha, abbot of Magway monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city and commercial capital, claims.
He says that under Than Shwe -- the leader of the former military dictatorship that ruled the country for a half-century -- Muslims were forgotten.
“The regime was busy suppressing the opposition, so Muslims took their chance... growing by marrying Buddhist girls, and forcing them to convert to Islam,” he said.
“But now we have the four Race and Religion laws to protect our Buddhist people."
Two years after Ma Ba Tha began lobbying the current government -- claiming Myanmar and its women were under threat from Islamization -- the country's so-called reformist President Thein Sein enacted four controversial laws that opponents have claimed are aimed solely at Muslims.
The country's Population Control and Healthcare Law, which carries no penalty, gives regional authorities the power to implement birth-spacing guidelines in areas with high rates of population growth, while a Monogamy Law prohibits a man from having more than one spouse, with punishments of up to seven years in prison.
A Religious Conversion Law -- which local and international human rights groups have slammed as state interference in the right to freedom of conscience and religion -- gives regional authorities the right to regulate religious conversion. It also prohibits converting with the intent to “insult, disrespect, destroy, or abuse a religion” and bars anyone from bullying or enticing another person to convert or deterring them from doing so.
Punishments for breaching the law range from six months to two years in prison, depending on the violation.
Meanwhile, the Interfaith Marriage Law -- aka the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law -- requires Buddhist women and men of other faiths to register their intent to marry with local authorities. Under the law, couples can only marry if there are no objections, with non-Buddhist men facing criminal penalties of up to three years in prison if they are found guilty of violating the law.
Opponents -- such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch -- have highlighted that the measures were enacted with a political purpose after Ma Ba Tha branded Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) as “Islamists” prior to November's landmark polls.
The NLD, however, won the election in a landslide, and is now in a position to elect the country’s president when it takes power in March of this year.
This week, human rights lawyer Robert San Aung told Anadolu Agency that the laws will destroy inter-religious harmony in the country.
“I am a Muslim, but I have many Buddhist friends. We are like brothers. Together we used to help each other in our religious festivals as well as in our daily routines,” San Aung said.
“These laws are isolating people of different religions and forcing them into a world of misunderstanding."
Muslims such as Myint Soe say that they are not turning their back on their faith, but his Buddhist wife and he now just want their children to stay out of prison.
“That’s why we want them to have spouses of the same religion,” he said.
“Some situations have changed here.”