Religious liberty restrictions were passed by the parliament of Burma (also known as Myanmar) on Aug. 21.
The legislation, set forth by Buddhist monks and first drafted in late May, would increase government control over religious conversion.
The proposal was initiated at the urging of a Buddhist organization connected to the 969 movement, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) reported in July.
This anti-Islamic Buddhist reform movement has urged followers to boycott Muslim stores and shun interfaith marriage.
While it doesn’t have official government endorsement, it has gained significant support from government leaders, according to Reuters.
“Under the proposed law, anyone who wants to change their faith is required to apply to local registration teams – consisting of religious affairs, immigration, women’s affairs, education and administration officials – for permission,” Radio Free News reported when the initial draft was published in May.
The legislation is part of four “race and religion” laws – a population control bill (approved by parliament in May) and an interfaith marriage bill (approved in July), along with a monogamy bill and a religious conversion bill (approved in August).
The population control bill regulates how often women can give birth, while the interfaith marriage legislation “mandates that Buddhist women register their intent to marry outside their faith and allows them to be stopped if there are objections,” Associated Press reported.
At a May 22 press conference in Rangoon, Burma, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted concern about the legislation, which “contains provisions that could be enforced in a manner that would undermine reproductive rights, women’s rights and religious freedom.”
He added, “We shared the concerns [with Burma’s leaders] that these bills could exacerbate ethnic and religious divisions and undermine the country’s efforts to promote tolerance and diversity.”
Human rights groups also have spoken against the legislative proposals.
Regarding the religious conversion bill, they have emphasized that state interference in religious conversion is a violation of human rights and expressed concern about the possible increase in community conflict and division.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) explained the conversion bill’s key features: “Anyone wishing to change their religion will have to be over 18 and will be required to file an application with a local board, including the reasons for the conversion,” the organization explained.
“The applicant would be interviewed by at least five board members, followed by a 90-day study period for the applicant … If the board approves the conversion, the applicant would then get a certificate of conversion,” HRW added.
“By passing these two draft laws, Parliament has ignored basic human rights and risks inflaming Burma’s tense intercommunal relations, threatening an already fragile transition ahead of landmark elections,” Phil Robertson, HRW deputy Asia director, said. “These discriminatory laws could fuel anti-Muslim sentiment, so [President] Thein Sein should demonstrate solid leadership, stand up for rights and refuse to sign them.”
Religious tensions have increased in recent years in the majority-Buddhist nation, with media calling attention to the nation’s discriminatory treatment of the Rohingya Muslims.
Yet, despite international opposition and an international focus on plight of the Rohingya, the religious conversion legislation passed in parliament last Friday and will become law if signed by Sein.
USCIRF joined HRW and others in releasing statements condemning the parliament’s decision to approve the religious conversion bill.
Chairman Robert P. George said, “This measure is discriminatory, period. It is gravely wrong for the government to presume to dictate whether an individual can change their religion or belief.”
A November 2014 USCIRF report designated Burma (Myanmar) as a country of particular concern, highlighting lack of religious liberty protections as a leading reason.
“Constitutional protections for religious freedoms in Burma are not sufficient to protect non-Buddhists from discrimination, violence or targeted crimes,” the report said. “And rather than reforming current laws, the government has facilitated the development of legislation that would further impinge on religious freedoms.”
Opposition to the legislation existed in parliament, but it was a minority group that was unable to prevent the legislation’s passage.
According to AP, “Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi compared Myanmar’s young democracy on [Aug. 21] to a malnourished child that is unable to thrive in an environment in which politicians are more interested in personal power than the rights of the people.”