Burmese Govt Publishes Draft of Religious Conversion Bill

By Lawi Weng 27 May 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s government is asking for public feedback on a controversial religious conversion bill that many activists have condemned as restrictive and undemocratic.

State-run newspapers on Tuesday published a draft of the bill, which is part of a package of proposed legislation to “protect race and religion” in the Buddhist-majority country.

The government says the religious conversion bill, drafted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, is intended to prevent forced conversions. According to the draft published in newspapers, forcing someone to convert to another religion would be punishable by one year in prison, while insulting another religion would be punishable by between one and two years in prison.

But activists in Burma have raised alarm over the restrictive nature of the bill, which also requires people to seek permission and register with local government authorities before converting.

According to the draft bill, authorities would ask several questions about an applicant’s reasons for changing faiths. Approval or rejection of the conversion request would occur within 90 days.

Burma’s Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, the country has seen a surge of anti-Muslim violence in recent years, while a growing movement of Buddhist monks has urged people to shun Muslim businesses.

This movement, known as 969, has seen firebrand monks such as U Wirathu preach sermons warning that the Muslim population in the country is increasing. Some observers see the government’s attempts to “protect race and religion” as a way to specifically stop Buddhist women from converting to Islam if they marry a Muslim man.

Some monks have spoken against discrimination, including Mandalay-based U Kavira, who cautioned against passing any bill that negatively targets religious minorities.

“It is important to have sincerity when issuing the bill. There should be no bias,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

In state-run newspapers, the government provided a fax number along with the draft bill, urging people to send their suggestions for possible changes.

Abu Tahay, a Rohingya Muslim leader and chairman of the Union National Development Party, said his party would send recommendations.

“Burma has multiple religions and the country is moving toward democracy. If there are restrictions on religion, this will tarnish the image of democracy,” he told The Irrawaddy.

Zaw Win Aung, joint chairman of the Christian Association Council in Mandalay, said he was worried about a loss of religious freedom.

“It is unacceptable for people to be required to ask permission if they want to convert to another religion,” he told The Irrawaddy.

“I am worried this regulation will be similar to Article 18,” he said, referring to a law that requires Burmese people to get permission from authorities before staging protests. “They would take action if you convert to another religion without permission.”

The “protection of race and religion” legislation package includes four controversial bills. In addition to the religion conversion bill, it includes a bill that restricts interfaith marriage, a bill that puts forward population control measures, and another that bans polygamy.