Myanmar's forbidden love spans religious divide

In nation where inter-religious couples are deplored, a former Buddhist monk and his wife, a Rohingya Muslim, lost everything to be together

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 October, 2012, 2:39am

Praying with a Koran on his knees in a mud-strewn camp, Rohin Mullah is one of thousands of Muslims uprooted by sectarian bloodshed in Myanmar.

But the former monk's story is far from normal.

Born a Buddhist, he fell in love with a girl on the other side of the religious divide - a member of the Rohingya minority group, largely shunned by Myanmese society.

He has since been ostracised by his former neighbours and lost his home, and lives in a camp for displaced people in western Rakhine state, which is reeling from an upsurge in Buddhist-Muslim violence since June.

"The Rakhine side hated me when I converted to Islam," he said. Mullah, 37, who changed his name from Kyaw Tun Aung, has had no contact with his parents since he married 10 years ago.

"For three days, my mother asked me why I was turning to Islam," he recalled.

His wife Amina, 30, said despite the lack of tolerance for their marriage, they had "a very happy life". "But since the violence, our life has been hard," she added.

Mullah, a construction worker, lived with his wife and three children in Rayngwesu, a Muslim district of the Rakhine state capital Sittwe, until the clashes erupted. He said the family's home was one of the first to be torched.

His background as a Rakhine Buddhist - who spent four years as a monk before converting 15 years ago - did not protect his home. "Monks remembered me … and they attacked my family and destroyed everything in my house," he said.

Amina has not met her in-laws. "I have never even seen them," she said.

Their situation is unusual in Rakhine, despite estimates of about 800,000 Rohingya living in the state. There are "not more than 100" mixed marriage couples, said Abu Tahay, a leader of the National Democratic Party for Development, which campaigns for the rights of the Rohingya - considered by the United Nations to be one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

"Some people meet and fall in love in school or while doing business," he said, but few opportunities for inter-religious courtship existed.

Oo Hla Saw, general secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, knew of one Muslim woman who converted to Buddhism to marry a Rakhine, but "generally, Rakhine people do not accept mixed couples".

A long history of discrimination and prejudice has left the Rohingya stateless, with restrictions on their movements and scant access to public services.

They are considered by the government and many ordinary people to be illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

June's violence left about 90 people dead, according to official figures, although rights groups say the toll is higher. Thousands from both communities were left homeless after villages were burned to the ground. The unrest continues, with new violence reported yesterday.

Now Mullah shares the fate of more than 50,000 Muslims, mainly Rohingya, who are housed in wretched camps in the state, unable to go home.

For more than four months the family has lived with 1,000 others in the Dabang camp on the outskirts of Sittwe.

But Mullah and his wife have no regrets about their union. They hope one day to return to the lives they knew before and reconcile the two communities.

"I want to go back to the city, where I lived for so many years," he said. "I would be happy to live with Rakhine people."