Burma Parliament Approves Contentious Race and Religion Bills

By Feliz Solomon 20 August 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s Union Parliament has approved two bills that place restrictions on religious conversion and polygamy, the last of four controversial bills concerning race and religion to have sped through the legislature since late last year.

Couched within a page-two brief about suspension of the current Upper House parliamentary session, the Global New Light of Myanmar reported on Thursday that the conversion bill had been passed by the Lower House. Burmese-language state newspaper The Mirror simultaneously reported that no amendments had been made to the draft approved by the Upper House in February, indicating de facto passage.

Endorsement of the monogamy bill by both houses was also referenced in consecutive editions of state media this week, garnering little fanfare.

Lawmakers confirmed that both bills had been passed by the bicameral Parliament and now await only the approval of President Thein Sein. Article 95(a) of the Constitution stipulates that once a bill has been passed by both houses it is deemed to be approved by the Union legislature.

The religious conversion bill and the monogamy bill are the last of four that make up a legislative package known as the “Race and Religion Protection bills,” which were first put forth by the powerful Buddhist nationalist group Ma Ba Tha in mid-2013 and reached Parliament late last year.

Two new pieces of legislation restricting interfaith marriage and allowing local government to impose birthrate limits have already been signed into law, drawing harsh criticism from the international community. Critics claim the laws could violate women’s rights and risk being used to target minorities.

Drafts of both bills passed this week were published by state media in December, and are likely to have since undergone minor modifications. The monogamy bill would ban polygamy and extramarital affairs while the conversion bill would establish new legal procedures for changing one’s faith, according to the drafts made public last year.

The most recent published version of the conversion bill required those wishing to convert to obtain a certificate from a local “registration body,” which is authorized to question the applicant and determine whether the conversion was voluntary or coercive.

The bill has come under scrutiny both in Burma and abroad for its susceptibility to abuse by local authorities. Burma is a vast and diverse country with a long history of religious persecution, particularly by the Buddhist majority against Christian and Muslim minorities.

The international community has issued several warnings that the proposed laws run afoul of international norms and could violate Burma’s treaty commitments. UN human rights envoy Yanghee Lee remarked earlier this month that “the package of four race and religious bills clearly violate [international] norms.”

David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, warned on Thursday that the conversion bill, as per the latest version made public, was “potentially dangerous” and “could be used to further inflame religious violence.”

Deadly bouts of violence between Buddhists and Muslims, most prominently the stateless Rohingya minority in western Burma, have plagued the country since mid-2012, leaving some communities completely segregated and tensions high.

Parliament resumed on Tuesday amid political fallout from a sudden purge in leadership of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Lawmakers had previously stated that swift passage of the so-called “protection bills” would be high on the agenda.

Burma’s Upper House announced on Wednesday that it would suspend its current session, the last before a general election to be held in November. Lawmakers are still expected to meet for joint sessions, as is the case on Thursday, to resolve outstanding legislation ahead of the polls.

Additional reporting contributed by Zarni Mann and Kyaw Phyo Tha.