Draft Law on Religious Conversion to Be Finished by June: Deputy Minister

By Yen Saning 2 April 2014

RANGOON — Within the next couple months, a government commission will finish drafting two bills to restrict religious conversion and to enact population control measures, the deputy minister for religious affairs says.

Maung Maung Htay said on Wednesday that commission members from the Ministry of Religious Affairs would finish drafting the religious conversion bill by late May or early June, while commission members from the Ministry of Immigration and Population would finish drafting the population control bill around the same time.

“When the draft laws are finished, we will try to make them available to the public,” he told The Irrawaddy on the sidelines of a press conference in Rangoon. He said the bills would be sent to President Thein Sein before being published for public review and forwarded to Parliament for consideration.

The proposed legislation has been supported by nationalist Buddhist monks as part of a package of four bills to “protect race and religion.” The other two bills, being drafted by the country’s highest court, would put restrictions on interfaith marriage and ban polygamy if enacted.

The monks collected more than 1 million signatures to back the bills, which are largely seen as a way to deter conversions to Islam in the Buddhist-majority country. Proponents have said a population control bill is necessary to prevent the Muslim population from growing.

Activists and some religious leaders have opposed the bills, which they say could enflame religious tensions. Other critics have questioned whether the government, and particularly the president, is seeking to exploit religious nationalism ahead of elections in 2015.

Maung Maung Htay, the deputy minister, said the religious conversion bill would outline steps that people would need to take before lawfully converting to another faith, including registering the conversion with government authorities. He said most religious conversions in Burma occurred due to interfaith marriages.

The interfaith marriage bill is still being drafted, but previous versions have called for Buddhist women to receive permission from their parents and government officials before marrying a man from any other faith, and for non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before marrying Buddhist women.

Zin Mar Aung, a women’s rights activist, criticized the campaign to “protect race and religion.”

“The ‘race protection’ laws are only for Buddhists, and they are especially restrictive for women. In a country with many ethnicities and religions, the laws don’t seem to fit with our reality,” the founder of the Rainfall Gender Study Group, which promotes democracy, women’s empowerment and conflict resolution in Burma, told The Irrawaddy.

She took particular issue with the interfaith marriage bill.

“Women don’t have the right to choose their partner on their own with this law,” she said. “Instead, we should develop women’s economic, academic and social skills so they can freely choose their life partners based on their own knowledge and decisions.”

The push to “protect race and religion” comes amid ongoing tension between Buddhists and Muslims, especially in western Burma’s Arakan State. Since 2012, communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims has left scores dead and over 140,000 people displaced.

“The situation in Rakhine [Arakan] is very complicated right now. The government will solve this and is trying to work with UN agencies. There are some who are initiating conflicts,” Maung Maung Htay told The Irrawaddy. “Matters of religion are related to belief, and this can be very sensitive.”