Burma’s Upper House of Parliament accepted a proposal to debate two controversial bills geared toward protecting race and religion in the Buddhist-majority country as the 12th parliamentary session began on Monday.
The Religious Conversion Bill and the Population Bill are part of a legislative package commonly referred to as the “Protection of Race and Religion Bills,” consisting of four bills that would create new rules regarding interfaith marriage, choice of faith and other elements of family life.
Initially proposed by a Buddhist nationalist group known as the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, known in Burmese as the Ma Ba Tha, the bills have met with waves of criticism from domestic and international rights advocates who claim the legislation would violate religious freedoms and undermine women’s rights.
Debate of the Conversion Bill was approved by a majority of lawmakers, though six objected to the proposal to discuss the bill. Upper House lawmaker Phone Myint Aung told The Irrawaddy that, “it is necessary to discuss these bills in Parliament,” adding that he supports the enactment of laws restricting religious conversion, particularly for Buddhists.
The proposed Population Bill proved less divisive, with all lawmakers agreeing to the debate without objection. Banyar Aung Moe, an ethnic Mon lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy that while he has mixed views on the entire package of bills, he agrees that they should have a place in parliamentary discussions.
“From a health perspective, we think controlling the population is necessary, so there were no objections to that discussion,” he said.
The Population Bill does not restrict birth nationwide, but grants power to state and regional governments to create regulations based on the needs of their respective communities, according to Phone Myint Aung. Some critics have argued that this could empower local governments to unfairly restrict minorities’ rights, while others defended the law on the grounds that it could prevent “rapidly booming” populations from “threatening” ethnic minority populations.
The majority of Burma’s population practices Buddhism, though the country is host to several other religions including Animism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. A movement to preserve Buddhist identity has gained momentum in recent years as Burma has grappled with ethnic and religious tension.
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 in mid-2012. Hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced and more than 200 have died during riots that overwhelmingly uprooted Muslim communities.
The Ma Ba Tha rose to prominence in the wake of the conflict, premised on preserving Burma’s dominant Buddhist identity. The legislation was first proposed in mid-2013, and has since met a barrage of criticism from a wide range of stakeholders.
Most recently, the top US rights official, Tom Malinowski, said the United States registered their concern about the legislation during a recent meeting with Union ministers. The official said the United States presented the Burmese government with a legal analysis of the four bills, which “raised serious questions about their conformity with international human rights standards.”