Myanmar Publishes Draft of Religious Conversion Bill

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myanmar-buddhist-devotees-may-2014.jpg Buddhist devotees pour water on a sacred tree as they take part in a ceremony at the Shwedagon pagoda to mark Buddha's birthday in Yangon, May 13, 2014.

Myanmar’s government on Tuesday published a draft bill on religious conversion, calling for public opinion on rules proposed by nationalist Buddhist monks which would require those who want to change faiths to first obtain permission from local authorities.

Under the proposed law, anyone who wants to change their faith is required to apply to local registration teams—consisting of religious affairs, immigration, women’s affairs, education, and administration officials—for permission.

If passed, those found to be guilty of violating a list of prohibitions—which includes obstructing someone from converting—would be subject to a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment and a fine of 200,000 kyats (U.S. $200).

Anyone found guilty of proselytizing could face up to a year in prison, though there is no mention of whether any action would be taken against someone who did not obtain permission to convert.

The religious conversion restrictions are part of a package of four bills that a coalition of monks known as the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief asked for in a petition to President Thein Sein in July last year and are currently being drafted by the government.

The proposed law was published in state media on Tuesday with a call for members of the public to submit their comments to the bill’s draft committee by June 20.

Calls for laws aimed at protecting race and religion in Myanmar have gained momentum since violence broke out between Buddhists and Muslims in the Buddhist-majority nation in 2012 following decades under tightly controlled military rule.

The violence has left more than 200 people dead and about 140,000 displaced, mostly Muslims.

While the draft law published on Tuesday does not mention any specific religion, it has prompted speculation that it could be aimed at preventing Muslims from trying to coerce Buddhist women into abandoning their faith, for marriage or otherwise.

Tilawka Biwuntha, a leader of the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief and one of the monks who proposed the religious conversion bill to Thein Sein last year, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that his group was pleased with the draft.

“We have seen that the draft law was written to include every ethnicity and according to international standards,” he said, adding that he planned to submit suggestions to the draft committee after he read through it in further detail.

However, Thin Thin Aung of the Women's League of Burma (WLB) told RFA that the draft law “makes it difficult” for people to convert their religion by adding further restrictions to the process.

She said that the law would specifically affect women from Myanmar who work in foreign countries.

“They would face difficulties in converting their religion for marriage, since the draft law states that they would have to register [with their local authorities] if they want to do so,” she said.

Muslim leader Diamond Shew Kyi said that the law would also discourage non-Buddhists from marrying women from Myanmar.

“No one who is from a different religion would marry Myanmar women who work in foreign countries—they would only live with Myanmar women in a relationship,” he said.

“Myanmar women would not have the right to marry men from different religions, as they would have to first register and meet with many different authorities.”

The Associated Press quoted Ma Thida, a well-known journalist, writer and former political prisoner, as opposing the proposal.

“Having to get permission from authorities for religious conversion restricts freedom of choice,” she told the AP.

“Any grown-up person has the right to convert to any religion of their choice without administrative interference.”

Public support

The Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief last year collected 1.3 million signatures in support of a religious conversion law, which the government sees as politically sensitive and is now trying to measure public support for.

Apart from religious conversion, the other laws proposed by the group in last year’s petition concern interfaith marriage, polygamy, and population control measures.

President Thein Sein in March formed committees to draft laws based on the group’s proposals.

All four draft laws are expected to be completed this month and released to the public, before they are finalized and submitted to Thein Sein by June 30, according to local media reports.

Earlier this month, 97 Myanmar civil society organizations condemned the drafting of the interfaith marriage law, which would require Buddhist women to seek permission from their parents and the authorities before marrying outside their faith.

The proposed law harms women’s rights and ethnic unity, they said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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