Suu Kyi Meets Critics of ‘Protection of Race and Religion’ Bills

religious conversion

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who leads Parliament’s Rule of Law Committee, speaks during a rally for constitutional reform in May. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met with members of civil society groups in Naypyidaw to discuss their concerns with a package of four bills to “protect race and religion.”

Lawmakers from Parliament’s Rule of Law Committee, chaired by Suu Kyi, met on Wednesday for more than two and half hours with 10 civil society representatives who are lobbying against the bills, according to Zin Mar Aung, a human rights activist from the Rainfall Gender Studies Group, who attended the meeting.

The bills to “protect race and religion” are highly controversial in Buddhist-majority Burma. If enacted, they would restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversions, ban polygamy and put forward measures to curb population growth. Activists have received death threats in recent weeks after publicly criticizing the interfaith marriage bill as discriminatory against women and religious minorities.

“We explained our opinions, especially about the interfaith marriage bill and the [religious] conversion bill. Some of us have been threatened by extremist groups, which is totally outside the rule of law. So we discussed how to take steps to promote rule of law,” Zin Mar Aung told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.

“She also sees problems—she mostly agreed with us,” the activist said of Suu Kyi’s response to their concerns about the bills, adding that the opposition leader emphasized the need to ensure that lawmakers consider only proposed legislation that would benefit communities.

Suu Kyi said the Rule of Law Committee only had the authority to make suggestions to Parliament, and would likely follow up after the meeting by submitting a report with recommendations.

On Thursday, 81 civil society groups also urged the Burmese government to scrap one of the four bills that restricts religious conversions. They said the bill, if enacted, would “violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities.”

“This new piece of draft legislation appears to legitimize the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities, and if adopted, will further institutionalize discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities,” the groups wrote in a statement, one day after a US government body said “such a law has no place in the 21st century.”

Drafted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and published in state media last month, the religious conversion bill requires government authorities to approve applications for religious conversions, including by questioning applicants to ensure that they truly believe in the new faith. Anyone deemed to be converting “with the intent of insulting or destroying religion” could face up to two years in prison. Those found to have pressured others to convert could be imprisoned for one year.

Burma’s 2008 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs says the bill is intended to protect this freedom by preventing forced conversions.

But the proposed legislation follows a surge of anti-Muslim violence in recent years, and comes amid calls by nationalist Buddhist monks to shun Muslim businesses. The monks, part of a movement known as 969, have warned that the Muslim population is increasing and threatens to destroy the country’s Buddhist culture.

Some critics worry the bills to protect race and religion, which were first proposed by the monks, are specifically intended to prevent Buddhists from converting to Islam.

Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Sint declined to comment on Thursday when asked by The Irrawaddy about the meeting with Suu Kyi and calls to drop the religious conversion bill.

In a list of objectives on its official website, his ministry says it aims to “allow freedom of faith,” but also to promote the “purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [teachings].”

The ministry says it supports religious minorities by settling disputes between faiths, making arrangements for non-Buddhists to travel abroad for pilgrimages or religious seminars, and allowing national radio broadcasts of Christian, Islamic and Hindu talks on religious holidays.

The 81 civil society groups—a mix of local groups including the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Kachin Peace Network, as well as international rights groups including Fortify Rights and Physicians for Human Rights—urged the Burmese government to not only scrap the religious conversion bill, but also to abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

“Replace it with an independent and impartial religious affairs commission with a mandate to eliminate all forms of religious discrimination,” they said in the statement.

Lawi Weng contributed to this report.

8 Responses to Suu Kyi Meets Critics of ‘Protection of Race and Religion’ Bills

  1. Ministry of Religious Affairs? I think it should be Ministry of Buddhist Affairs 🙂

  2. Calling themselves “Defenders of the Faith” but in reality destroyers of monasteries and killers of monks, still relentlessly banishing, banning sermons and persecuting monks.

    Chauvinist, racist, bigoted fascist govt and its minions/thugs in uniform, yellow as well as green, and mufti.

  3. Early time of Burmese Independence there was freedom of religion, why because Burmese Buddhists need to obtain independence. After getting independence, the Burmese forget the gratitude of Muslims and others Christain brothers. Now ruling Burmese Buddhists becomes too much egoist and dominant society and they want to do all against freedom, rights and international practice. Actually ruling class want to dig their grave yards by doing all kinds of nonsense and going to backward.

  4. Muslims, Christians and Hindus combined cannot make a threat to super majority Buddhists and Buddhism in Myanmar. This bogus law is the symbol of undemocratic regime of Myanmar. Every move the regime is making these days reveal that Myanmar is not trying to go into democracy but Fundamentalist Unitary Regime of Myanmar. It is not even worthy to be called UNION. Religious extremism and military regime seem husband and wife from Maung Pauk Kyaing’s family.

  5. For me, the protecting race and religion law is not important and the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) is using race and religion as their political game against Daw Su and NLD.
    Islamic countries have exercise the protecting race and religion rule regardless of whether it was included in country constitution or not but Muslim can’t covert to other religion. In some Islamic countries, Muslim converting to other religion is death penalty.
    If majority Burmese peoples want that law and then let them have it. It’s democracy.
    I think Daw Su and NLD shouldn’t against the protection of race and religion bill when it was vote in Upper House and Lower House. Later the law can be repealed or replaced with proper one when Burmese peoples change their mind.
    The most important thing for this time is changing Article 436 in Constitution.

  6. Yes, indeed.! By all means, dismantle the religious affairs minisry, and also reform the Thangha Nayakas.

  7. Race & Religion is already out of date, because it was an issue during the time of Gneral Aung San and for ” Do-Bama Asiayone “. General Aung San never give agreement to bring this issue into politics. Amyo-Batthar-Thathana is only concern with Buddhist group to protech them self not with other religion. At present they are mixing with religion and politics, so the narrow minded group want to control every things for their benefits of interests and political power, as such situation of Burma cannot be progress for general public properrity and the country.

    King Anawrathar of Bagan used same salowgan to win Ariya-Buddhisim which were dominated by Ariya monks at Popa area at the time of 11th century. So Anawrathar was very wise, so he brought Buddhism from Mon
    to make cleaning of Ariya monks and they were the then killed by Anawrathar so that to establish his greatest power of First Burmese Empire by using Htayrawada Buddhism which last long till to day.

    Now is 21st century, world is one human society just diffrent of men made boundry and diffrent names of country living as a family, no big and small nations, but all are same equal footing and equal rights.

  8. Christians killed millions of people in the in the name of religion throughout the history and now they are still killing each other by many different excuses. Muslins kills each other and recently more to other believers and forced people to follow their religion. Hindus killed conntless number of the people in the name of religion and other reasons in the history and recent era. Budhists are also doing the same in the name of protecting their religion. None of those happened without a motive behind it. Look into what exactly happened on earth. Don’t just jump onto band wagon and blame someone else. Referring to Bo Aung San and “Do Ba Mar Asi Ayone” is one of the examples that requires more reference. Remember, British solders (and Indian solders) steps onto Shwe Dagon Pagoda without respect and mercilessly kicked tortured, inprisoned beheaded and killed Burmese independent activists for more than a century. Burmese were onnce treated as dumbed, uneducated and outclassed by the colonialists and their followers in their own country. Many people don’t have any clue of why some ethinc groups fighting against the mainland government, when did it start, who provided support and armed them making damages throughout the country since the day of independence. Now they are crying out and blaming someone for religious suppression and ethnic cleansing.

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