‘Protection Laws’ Submitted to Burma’s Parliament

By The Irrawaddy 2 December 2014

RANGOON — A controversial legislative package commonly known as the “protection of race and religion laws” has been submitted to Burma’s legislature and will be up for debate during the next parliamentary session in January 2015.

President’s Office Director Zaw Htay, also known as Hmuu Zaw, wrote on social media on Monday that the four bills—which include new regulations on religious conversion, interfaith marriage, population control and monogamy—were tabled late last week and drafts are now viewable on the Ministry of Information website.

The bills, first proposed by the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (known in Burmese as Ma Ba Tha), have been controversial from the outset, fielding criticism from women’s rights advocates and several of Burma’s ethnic and religious minorities.

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

A proposed Marriage Bill would require Buddhist  women to seek permission from local authorities before marrying a man of another faith, while the Religious Conversion Bill creates new legal criteria for changing faiths. The conversion policy has received particular scorn from some of Burma’s minority faiths, including Christians and Muslims, who have historically been subject to religious persecution by the former military regime.

But the legislation has also drawn supporters, most recently in late October, when Buddhist monk U Wirathu helped to organize a demonstration of thousands who marched through the streets of Mandalay demanding that the bills be swiftly implemented. U Wirathu is a key backer of the legislation and a central figure in the Ma Ba Tha. He is also associated with a Buddhist nationalist movement in Burma that is widely perceived anti-Muslim.

Buddhist-majority Burma has grappled with ethnic and religious tension for decades, but in recent years the issue has become a fixture of political discourse as inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims broke out in several parts of the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and more than 200 have died in a rash of riots beginning in mid-2012 that has overwhelmingly uprooted Muslim communities.

The Ma Ba Tha came to prominence after the conflict, premised on preserving Burma’s dominant Buddhist identity. The legislation was first proposed in mid-2013.

According to Zaw Htay’s statement, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Population Bill were submitted to Parliament by the Union Government on Nov. 24th, while the Interfaith Marriage Bill and the Monogamy Bill were submitted by the Union Attorney General on Nov. 26th.

While new legislation is typically published in state media for public review before parliamentary debate, only one of the proposed laws, the Religious Conversion Bill, has been published in state newspapers. The remaining three were published on the Ministry of Information website in Burmese language on Dec. 1, 2014.

This article was updated on Dec. 4 to clarify that the current version of a proposed Marriage Bill does not require non-Buddhist men to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist. The provision was part of an earlier version of the bill, proposed by the Ma Ba Tha, which has since been revised.