Lawmakers Debate Religious Protection Bills

By Lawi Weng & Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint 30 January 2015

RANGOON — Parliament turned its attention this week to two bills in a package of controversial legislation that aims to “protect race and religion” in Burma.

Lawmakers in the Upper House discussed the Religious Conversion Bill on Tuesday and Wednesday, with five parliamentarians taking to the floor in support and four lawmakers speaking against it. The proposed legislation would mandate a number of administrative hurdles for religious converts, including having to interview before a government panel tasked with ruling on whether the applicant is genuine in his or her desire to change faiths.

On Thursday, seven lawmakers discussed the Population Bill. Four parliamentarians including a Burma Army representative supported the bill, and three opposed. The proposed legislation would grant state and regional governments the power to restrict birthrates on health grounds, a lawmaker told The Irrawaddy last week.

Deliberation of the Population Bill will continue next week and Parliament is expected to take up the remaining two so-called protection bills in the days ahead: one restricting interfaith marriage and the other banning polygamy.

Speaking on the Upper House floor on Thursday, Khin Maung Latt from the Arakan National Party (ANP) said the population legislation was designed to preserve the religious identity of majority-Buddhist Burma.

“We are trying to protect our religion because we are worried that other religions will influence our religion. There are some countries in the world that have been wholly converted to another religion. We need to pay heed to this. This law would not hurt anyone.”

Khin Maung Latt said the legislation would not need to be applied nationwide, saying only areas of instability such as his native Arakan State required the Population Bill’s restrictions.

The lawmaker cited a frequent claim of ethnic Arakanese Buddhists, who say an influx of illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh weighs down Arakan State’s economy. He added that Burma’s geographic location made the country especially vulnerable.

“Forty percent of the world’s population comes from India, China and Bangladesh. These countries surround our country,” he said. “We should not allow the illegal population to grow in our country. We need to control it.”

Maj. Ye Wint Soe, an army representative in the Upper House, echoed Khin Maung Latt’s support for the law on economic grounds. “In order to escape from poverty, this law should be passed in Parliament,” he said.

However, Aung Kyi Nyunt from the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) rejected the legislation on human rights grounds.

“Our country signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but our country is trying to implement this law. This would violate UN law,” he said.

Upper House parliamentarian Zone Hlyal Htan said Burma, which in August learned that it had 9 million fewer people than was widely believed, said the country could afford a growing population.

“Our people … can decide whether they want to have children or not. We should not force them by law. This law could hurt our country’s reforms,” the Chin lawmaker said.

“I feel this law could violate human rights and it would offer no advantage to our country.”

Khin Waing Kyi, the sponsor of the legislation package, told Parliament on Thursday that she was surprised to see opposition to the proposals.

“I just intend for this proposal to help development in our country,” said the National Democratic Force (NDF) party lawmaker. “If we have this law, our government may find it easier to manage population and even easier to develop the country. I do not think that this law would violate human rights.”

A coalition of 180 groups in Burma thinks otherwise, coming out against the legislative package on Wednesday for restrictions that signatories said would violate multiple international and domestic commitments to human rights, including the country’s Constitution.

Than Lwin, a member of a parliamentary commission on rule of law that analyzed the bills, told The Irrawaddy that lawmakers should drop the legislation, saying “the dignity of Parliament will be hurt” if not.

The bills were first proposed by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (known in Burmese as Ma Ba Tha), a group led by ultranationalist monk U Wirathu that collected more than 100,000 signatures in support of the bills. The draft law has been controversial from the outset, however, fielding criticism from women’s rights advocates and several of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities.

Critics argue that enacting the bills would deal a blow to religious freedom, and that the laws would undermine women’s ability to make independent choices about their faith, partner and family.