RANGOON — Buddhist nationalists secured a formal legislative victory on Friday with official passage of laws restricting religious conversion and banning polygamy, as the Union Parliament approved the controversial bills after accepting feedback from President Thein Sein.
The two bills were sent to the president earlier this month, and Thein Sein returned the legislation with just one suggested change, removing a provision in the monogamy bill that had guaranteed inheritance rights for children conceived out of wedlock. The Union Parliament approved that change on Friday.
While the monogamy law bans polygamy and marital infidelity—subjecting violators to up to seven years in prison—the religious conversion law requires individuals seeking to change faiths to obtain a certificate from a local “registration body” that is authorized to question applicants to determine whether the conversion is voluntary or coercive.
Forcing a religious conversion is punishable by up to two years in prison, as is disingenuous conversion “with the intent to insult” that religion. Conversely, preventing an individual from willfully converting to a different religion is punishable by up to six months in prison.
Detractors have said the laws—and two other pieces of legislation that proponents collectively refer to as the Race and Religion Protection Laws—are an affront to women’s rights and could be used to target minorities such as Burma’s Muslim population.
Those concerns did not prevent Parliament from prioritizing the bills this month as lawmakers returned to Naypyidaw for the last legislative session ahead of Burma’s Nov. 8 general election.
Pe Than, an Arakan National Party (ANP) lawmaker supporting the legislation, said the laws would protect and benefit women in the country, as well as encourage marital fidelity and single-spouse households.
The four laws—the other two were passed earlier this year, restricting interfaith marriage and empowering local authorities to set birth spacing requirements—have been backed by the Organization for the Protection of Race and Religion, better known by its acronym Ma Ba Tha. U Pamaukka, a monk and senior member of Ma Ba Tha, said Monday that he wanted to offer his gratitude to Thein Sein and U Wirathu, a firebrand monk who has been among the most prominent supporters of the laws.
U Pamaukka said rigorous enforcement would have to follow the laws’ passage in order to ensure that they achieve the stated aim of protecting Buddhist women.
“There are many laws in our country, but it is just on paper or otherwise people who have money win the favor of the judiciary. I am worried that the new law might become like this.”
U Pamaukka claimed the conversion law was necessary because there were Burmese Buddhist women who were forced to convert to Islam despite first being told by their husbands that they would have freedom to choose their faith.
But according to prominent Burmese legal activist Robert San Aung, the text of the legislation did not provide clear indication of what authority would field complaints and process legal proceedings stemming from alleged violations of the laws. The lawyer added that the laws “do not meet international standards” on human rights, a sentiment echoed by Yanghee Lee, the UN human rights envoy to Burma, earlier this month.
“Burma is a signatory to the UN [Universal]Declaration of Human Rights, but the new laws do not meet international standards, and could even run afoul of the Constitution,because the law restricts the right to belief, which the Constitution enumerates as a right,” said Robert San Aung, who urged lawmakers to revisit the legislation.
“Burmese monks who love peace and Burmese academics should work together in order to amend this law, but should not allow [input from] monks who rail against other religions,” he said, an apparent reference to clergymen like U Wirathu who have explicitly stoked anti-Muslim sentiment in Burma.
Ultimately, the lawyer said Ma Ba Tha and parliamentarians were legislating a matter over which laws are powerless.
“Laws cannot stop love. No one can stop it,” Robert San Aung said.“Our problem is that they are trying to stop love by using the law.”