Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court to Draft ‘Protection of Religion’ Law

By Lawi Weng 7 March 2014

RANGOON — Burma President Thein Sein has ordered a new commission and the country’s highest court to draft a proposed so-called “protection of race and religion” law, which could include a controversial measure to restrict interfaith marriage, according to lawmakers.

A petition signed by about 1.3 million people has called for the president to pass into law a version of a bill drafted by lawyers on behalf of leading monks in the nationalist 969 movement.

If enacted without amendment, the bill—which is thought to be targeted at Muslims in Burma—would require Buddhist women to get permission from their parents and local government officials before marrying a man from another faith. It also includes restrictions on converting to another religion, a limit to the number of children people can have, and measures to stop polygamy—which is already strictly illegal in Burma.

Late last month Thein Sein, without formally expressing support for the bill, forwarded it to Parliament for discussion, but Speaker Shwe Mann immediately sent it back, insisting that it was the executive branch’s responsibility to draft laws, then pass them to Parliament to debate.

On Friday, Shwe Mann announced in Parliament that he had received a new letter regarding the bill, according to Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party.

“He [Thein Sein] informed Parliament that his government will form a commission to draft a [protection of race and religion] law,” he said.

However, in a move that baffled lawmakers, Thein Sein has reported decided that sections of the law covering certain issues would be drafted by the Union Supreme Court.

“His commission will take two issues: that one man is only able to have one wife and converting to another religion. The other two issues— interfaith marriage and restricting population—he will let the Union [Supreme] Court draft,” Pe Than said.

He said the move to have a branch of the judiciary draft a law was unprecedented, and that he did not understand why the president has chosen to do so.

Pe Than said that the law would address the fear among many Burmese Buddhists that the country’s dominant religion is under threat from Muslims. Tension between Buddhists and Muslims has run high since inter-communal violence broke out in Rakhine State in mid-2012, and later spread around the country.

“For me, I will not block this law as we all need to protect our race,” he said. “But one thing about protection of race is that while we need to protect our fence, we should not disturb other people’s fence.”

Mi Myint Than, lawmaker from the Mon Regional Democracy Party, confirmed the president’s decision.

“Usually, most draft laws come from the government administration. But on this issue, the president just sent it to the Parliament [originally],” she said, adding that it was more appropriate for a government ministry to draft the law.

“It’s a little strange. I can’t understand why,” she added.

Presidential spokesman Ye Htut last week commented on the earlier forwarding of the proposal to Parliament. On the sidelines of a meeting in Naypyidaw on March 1, Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy that the president’s wish in doing so was for Parliament to consider the issue, since so many people had expressed support for it, and not to make any political gain.

“According to our Constitution, no one from any political party can take political advantage from a religious issue,” he said.