Octogenarian former lawyer U Ye Khaung Nyunt was drawn out of retirement to help compose the recently passed ‘Race and Religion’ laws. He told Frontier why.
U Ye Khaung Nyunt, a frail, wispy-haired, bespectacled man of 80 years, tottered into to the living room of his east Yangon mansion supported at one arm by his daughter. Though struggling to walk, he remained standing long enough to list a series of ailments, including diabetes, that are troubling him in his old age.
“I am not well,” he said. “I can’t go the monastery anymore.” Despite his frailness, this elderly retired lawyer recently mustered his strength to help compose the Race and Religion Protection Laws, a legislative package decried around the world as a veiled attack by extremist Buddhists on the rights of Myanmar’s Muslims, who comprise less than 5% of the population.
The last of the laws was signed by President U Thein Sein at the end of August.
“After independence, Bengali Muslims encroached on our land,” U Ye Khaung Nyunt said, referring to the end of British colonial rule in 1948 and to an ethnic group who identify themselves as Rohingya. “They took so many wives, had lots of children and spread very rapidly.”
This perceived invasion by Muslims via marriage and reproduction has been a key theme of a flourishing hate-speech campaign led by Buddhist monks in recent years. The message, shouted through megaphones at rallies and burnt onto CD recordings of religious sermons, is that Buddhism in Myanmar is under attack, and will be wiped out entirely if nothing is done to curb the spread of Islam.
In 2013, following country-wide religious violence that began the year before, an ultra-nationalist group called Ma Ba Tha was formed to push for a legislative solution — four new laws that impose restrictions on giving birth, interfaith marriage, extramarital affairs and religious conversions. While the laws do not explicitly mention Muslims, it is clear that they are the target. The idea came after a meeting in Yangon in May that year by “senior monks of the Sangha” – Myanmar’s Buddhist clergy – to discuss how to “get peace between the two factions”, according to U Ye Khaung Nyunt.
“After the meeting they made a resolution that they wanted a law enacted by the government to get full protection for Burmese Buddhists. One of the Sayadaws (senior monks,) U Pinnya Wara, came to my house and he asked me to draft this law,” U Ye Khaung Nyunt said. He initially refused, twice, telling the monk that he did not want to get involved in politics. After retiring from law in the nineties, the former lawyer devoted much of his time to meditation. “I wanted to give up all mundane affairs.”
“These laws are a shield, not a sword… In every country the population must be controlled according to the national needs.”
On his living room wall there is a painting of the Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s holiest temple, that U Ye Khaung Nyunt painted himself in the 1970s. It features a monk that he said represents himself, a woman prostrating before him that represents his late wife, and two nuns in the background depicting his daughters. The pagoda was the starting point last month for a two-week long celebration by Ma Ba Tha monks and supporters to welcome the recent passing of the bills. The festivities involved prayers, nationalist songs and photo exhibitions portraying crimes by extremist Muslims.
The third time the Venerable U Pinnya Wara, a senior Sangha Maha Nayaka member, approached U Ye Khaung Nyunt asking him to help write the laws, he relented. “He had retired from politics … but monks came and talked to him after the 2012 violence and said ‘Are you just going to watch this or are you going to do something?’ and they persuaded him,” said Ma Khin Swe Thit, U Ye Khaung Nyunt’s daughter, who is herself a retired lawyer and helped her father to draft the religious bills by researching books on family law.
Ma Ba Tha, apparently aware of their appalling reputation abroad and to a lesser extent in Myanmar, are at pains to counter their image as aggressive bullies. During the interview a two-man Ma Ba Tha camera crew filmed both U Ye Khaung Nyunt and this reporter.
A key part of Ma Ba Tha’s message is that the work they do is defensive, rather than aggressive, something that U Ye Khaung Nyunt echoed: “These laws are a shield, not a sword… In every country the population must be controlled according to the national needs.”
U Ye Khaung Nyunt did not write every word of each law, but rather drafted short versions of two of them – the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill and the Religious Conversion Bill – and submitted the proposals to the legislature after they were approved by Ma Ba Tha monks. The rest of the work, he said, was done by the relevant ministries.
U Ye Khaung Nyunt thinks his contribution to Ma Ba Tha’s campaign will boost his Buddhist merit. “By doing this, I’m not doing any sin, I realised. I’m making no harm to any person and doing good for all, meaning all persons in all religions.
“I have a duty, as a citizen of Myanmar I have to protect our national interests. [Buddhist women] have been insulted, they are forced to marry, forced to convert religions.”
The laws didn’t make it through parliament exactly as he had intended though. He wanted to explicitly ban any non-Buddhist man from marrying a Buddhist woman, something he regarded as one of the most important elements of the bills. But as the law stands now, non-Buddhist men can, technically, wed Buddhist women, but these couples are subjected to a raft of restrictions. For example, local authorities have the power to publicise an interfaith marriage and invite objections from members of the public.
He helped draft the laws pro bono and without “any ulterior motive, no hatred to any other person,” he said. “I don’t want to offend any person.”
It was at this point that U Ye Khaung Nyunt, who remained outwardly affable even when supporting ideas many find abhorrent, made a bold claim, seemingly unaware that he was using a cliché widely attributed to bigots: “I have got many Muslim friends.”