(New York) – Burma’s parliament should scrap a proposed religion law that would encourage further repression and violence against Muslims and other religious minorities, Human Rights Watch said today. The draft law on religious conversions, published in the state-run media on May 27, 2014, would impose unlawful restrictions on Burmese citizens wishing to change their religion.
“Burma’s government is stoking communal tensions by considering a draft law that will politicize religion and permit government intrusion on decisions of faith,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Following more than two years of anti-Muslim violence, this law would put Muslims and other religious minorities in an even more precarious situation.”
Under the draft law, any Burmese citizen who plans to change religion must seek a series of permissions from local representatives of government departments, including the Ministries of Religion, Education, Immigration and Population, and Women’s Affairs, and wait 90 days for permission to be granted. Penalties for failing to obtain government permission to change one’s religion are not stated. Proselytizing, forcing someone to convert, or insulting another religion would become punishable by up to one year in prison.
The draft law was printed in full in Burmese language state media. Human Rights Watch noted that the government provided a fax number for citizens to send feedback to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, although very few citizens in Burma have access to a fax machine.
If enacted, the bill would violate Burma’s obligations to uphold the rights to freedom of religion, conscience, and expression under international law. The proposed restrictions on conversion, proselytizing, and speech contravene the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom;” and that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom … to seek, receive and impart information and ideas.”
The proposed law could also violate the rights of women “freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage,” under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Burma is a party.
Burma’s 2008 Constitution in article 34 provides that citizens may “freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health,” and article 348 ensures that the state “shall not discriminate against any citizen … based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth.”
“Requiring government permission to change one’s faith breaches every tenet of religious freedom and provides officials wide latitude to act arbitrarily and deny permission,” Adams said. “The draft religion law is a recipe for further outrages against Burma’s Muslim minority. Rather than pandering to Buddhist extremists, the government should be acting to bridge the divides that threaten Burma’s fragile reform process.”
The Ministry of Religious Affairs drafted the law as part of a series of four laws related to marriage, religion, polygamy, and family planning proposed by a Buddhist organization called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (or its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha) connected to the nationalist Buddhist monk movement known as “969.” The four draft laws had been sent to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. Thein Sein and the speaker of the national assembly, Thura Shwe Mann, instructed relevant ministries and departments to convert the monks’ draft laws into government-endorsed drafts to be considered by the public before being introduced into the lower house of parliament after June 20 in the assembly’s current session.
A senior leader of the group, U Wirathu, has been quoted in the media saying that “[Muslims] are breeding so fast and they are stealing our women, raping them.” He also said most of Burma’s Muslims are “radical, bad people.”
While the laws are widely perceived to be directed against Burma’s Muslim minority, particularly the long-persecuted and effectively stateless Rohingya minority in Arakan State, the country’s sizeable Christian minority would also be negatively affected.
On May 6, 97 Burmese women’s groups and community organizations signed a joint petition to the government decrying the inter-faith marriage law. Responding to this petition, nationalist monks referred to these groups as “lice that live under the skin,” and Wirathu referred to them as traitors. Nationalist monks have exerted increasing influence in Burmese public life since the political reform process started, and have targeted Muslim communities and international Muslim organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Human Rights Watch’s investigations into violence in western Burma’s Arakan State in 2012 found evidence that security forces and government-backed groups committed crimes against humanity in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Rohingya and other Muslims. More than 180,000 Rohingya remain internally displaced; many others have fled the country.
“The government’s failure to address anti-Muslim repression and violence in the country is a powder keg waiting to be lit,” Adams said. “International donors, investors, and governments need to vocally oppose this law and other laws and policies that could result in long-term religious discrimination in Burma.”