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Interfaith couple tests limits of Buddhist tolerance in Myanmar

Five years ago, a Buddhist converted to marry a Muslim in Myanmar’s conflict-torn Rakhine State. He now hides his prior identity due to the threat of retribution by majority Buddhists.

SITTWE, Myanmar — Mohammed Saed is a man with two names and two identities.

On one side of a checkpoint, he is a Muslim living in a wretched refugee camp. On the other side, he belongs to the majority Buddhist community in northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine State. The checkpoint separates Buddhists and Muslims in a region that erupted in sectarian violence in June 2012, forcing more than 70,000 internally displaced Rohingya Muslims into camps. 

When Mr. Saed passes the checkpoint and goes to the market to buy food and goods for his family and his Muslim neighbors, he goes by the name on his Myanmar ID card: Aung Lay Tun. He risks being beaten and possibly killed if Rakhine extremists discover that he is a Buddhist who converted to Islam.

Saed was born in a Buddhist family. When he was 15 years old his parents died and he was adopted by a Rohingya woman. “Nobody else did anything for me,” he says.

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Five years ago he converted to Islam and acquired his new name to marry Fahima Begun, a woman from his neighborhood in Sittwe whom he had known since he was adopted. The couple has a daughter and a son, rare examples of children with parents from both communities. Their story, and the fact that Saed now hides his identity, underscores the increasing polarization between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar, and particularly in Rakhine State, over the last two years.

Interfaith unions could become even rarer in Myanmar under a proposed law that would severely curtail the right of Buddhist women to marry men of other religions.

Led by a influential anti-Muslim monk Ashin Wirathu, a coalition of monks, lawyers, and other laypeople collected more than one million signatures last year in support of their proposed law. It would restrict Buddhist women to marrying only Buddhists; require other faiths to convert before marrying a Buddhist; and make mandatory written parental consent for a bride to marry. The penalty for trying to marry a Buddhist in violation of the law would be a 10-year prison sentence and the confiscation of properties.

The Attorney General’s office is expected to present a bill to Parliament after revising it. Human rights organizations have criticized the proposal as legalizing discrimination in Myanmar’s family laws.

Uneasy coexistence broken

In the past, Buddhists and Muslims in Sittwe managed to live side by side, however uneasily. “My parents always got along very well with Muslims, there was never a problem between both communities when I was a kid,” says Saed.

This precarious coexistence snapped in June 2012, when successive waves of sectarian violence engulfed the state, leaving at least 240 people dead, mostly Rohingya Muslims.

Tens of thousands of people, mostly Muslims, lost their houses during the violence and were displaced to camps. The government separated the communities immediately after the violence, confining Rohingyas to heavily guarded areas from where they are not allowed to move. The government says the separation is needed to prevent further violence.

Claims of government security forces participating in – or turning a blind eye to ­– the attacks have dogged the government since the outbreak of violence.

“The state has been an active driver of abuse against Rohingya for decades and that is still the case,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, an advocacy group based in Bangkok.

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By some estimates, Buddhists make up 90 percent and Muslims 4 percent of a population of roughly 53 million. Around one million Muslims are ethnic Rohingya who live mostly in Rakhine state, as well as in neighboring Bangladesh where older camps house Rohingya displaced by previous waves of unrest. 

Myanmar’s former military regime excluded Rohingya from an official list of 135 different national ethnic groups, despite having lived in Myanmar for generations; many Buddhists regard them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Last month, Myanmar held its first census in thirty years, but an option for Rohingya to write in their ethnicity was dropped due to opposition from Rakhine Buddhists. 

New hardships in camps

The separation and lack of freedom of movement has resulted in an unequal distribution of resources, “through which Muslims are denied basic rights, services, and aid,” says Mr. Smith.

There is some economic exchange between both communities in Rakhine State, but only a few Rakhines dare to trade with the Rohingya and there are very few Rohingya who can afford to buy anything. As a result, displaced Rohingya rely almost entirely on aid from international agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

In late March, the Myanmar government evacuated all international organizations from Rakhine State after a wave of attacks on offices by Rakhine extremist mobs. Some are returning, but two organizations that were expelled – Doctors Without Borders and Malteser International – are not expected to go back.

The lack of aid has turned a desperate situation into a humanitarian catastrophe.

During a recent visit to the camps, The Christian Science Monitor witnessed many cases of acute malnutrition in children and people severely sick from preventable illnesses. In one case, a one year-old child had died after having diarrhea and fever for one day. 

Despite these hardships, Saed has chosen to stay in the camps with those whom he now considers his people.

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And in these conditions of absolute segregation, there is little room for mixed identities. “My children are just Rohingya. And so I am,” he proclaims proudly.

The names of the Rohingya in this report have been changed for security reasons. Mr. Galache is a reporter with Transterra Media.