Space Shrinking for Minorities in Burma

By: Fernando Perez

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report - 3/2014

Burma’s Buddhist extremist groups have been in news for inciting violent attacks on the Muslim Rohingya minority. But instead of protecting the victims, the government has proposed laws that would restrict fundamental rights not only of the Muslims but also of Christians.

A committee under the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party has drafted two laws as part of a “National Race and Religion Protection” package, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Emergency Provisions on Marriage Act for Burmese Buddhist Women.

The interfaith marriage legislation would restrict a Buddhist woman from marrying a partner outside of her religion, unless the man converts to Buddhism before marriage. The conversion bill would allow the state to decide who may convert to another religion and who may not.

The “need” for these bills was felt by the government after hundreds of Rohingya Muslims were killed by local Buddhists and tens of thousands were displaced in a deadly sectarian violence in Rakhine State in 2012.

Behind the bills is a coalition of Buddhist monks, known as the Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion, and Belief. Part of the coalition is Ashin Wirathu Thera, leader of a highly controversial and extremist campaign known as the “969 Movement,” which portrays minority Muslims are a threat to the Buddhist majority. Wirathu once who described himself as the “bin Laden” of Buddhism.

After the 2012 violence, governments and human rights groups from around the world called for protection of precious lives of Rohingyas, whose ancestors were migrants from Bangladesh. However, the regime in Burma, also known as Myanmar, chose, in a political expedient move, to listen instead to Buddhist extremist groups.

While the bills are apparently aimed at the Muslim minority, given the context under which they have been proposed, the laws will restrict religious freedom of all minorities, including Christians.

Particularly the conversion bill would grossly impinge on religious freedom – although the seven-chapter draft claims that its purpose is to ensure freedom of religion and to make religious conversion transparent.

The bill would form “registration boards” in townships with the jurisdiction to examine and “approve” religious conversions. Those seeking to convert to another religion would be required to submit an application with their personal details as well as to state the reason for their conversion. The board, with the presence of at least four of its members, would then interview the applicant to “determine” within 90 days if the intention to convert is sincere and also “assess” whether the conversion is voluntary.

Only after the board grants its approval will an applicant be issued a certificate of conversion, which would then have to be reported to local immigration authorities by the applicant.

The bill also states that no one below the age of 18 can convert from the faith she or he was born.

The legislation would outlaw conversion with intent to insult or damage any other religion, forced or coerced conversion and harassment meant to influence choice of faith – which would leave room for discretion by authorities.

Those found guilty of violating any prohibition would be subject to a penalty of up to two years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,000 kyats ($200).

While the coalition of monks claim they collected 1.3 million signatures in support of the conversion law, activists and groups within Burma and abroad have expressed serious concerns over the legislation.

“It is unacceptable for people to be required to ask permission if they want to convert to another religion,” Zaw Win Aung, joint chairman of the Christian Association Council in Mandalay, told The Irrawaddy magazine. “I am worried this regulation will be similar to Article 18,” he said, referring to a law that requires Burmese people to get permission from authorities before staging protests. “They would take action if you convert to another religion without permission.”

“Burma’s government is stoking communal tensions by considering a draft law that will politicize religion and permit government intrusion on decisions of faith,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Following more than two years of anti-Muslim violence, this law would put Muslims and other religious minorities in an even more precarious situation.”

Adams added: “Requiring government permission to change one’s faith breaches every tenet of religious freedom and provides officials wide latitude to act arbitrarily and deny permission. The draft religion law is a recipe for further outrages against Burma’s Muslim minority. Rather than pandering to Buddhist extremists, the government should be acting to bridge the divides that threaten Burma’s fragile reform process.”

The government of President Thein Sein perhaps wants to appease Buddhist groups irrespective of their orientation or ideology, given that the next election is due next year when the popular opposition leader, Daw Aug San Suu Kyi, might also be standing for president.

The population of Burma is predominantly Buddhist, and a majority of them are from the Burman ethnic group. And most of the members of minority communities are religiously and ethnically different from Burman Buddhist people.

The proposed bills could also be an attempt to divert attention away from Suu Kyi’s campaign for amendments to the constitution – which was adopted in 2008 through a referendum that was believed to be rigged and was held soon after the devastating Cyclone Nargis. The constitution still doesn’t allow true democracy to arrive in a nation that was ruled by the military for decades.

The constitution establishes military’s control over the government by granting the military absolute powers. It provides for the Tatmadaw, or the military, to appoint 25 percent of the various legislative bodies, including the national. A constitutional amendment is possible only if at least 75 percent of the national legislators vote for it.

Minority groups and individuals in Burma must express their concerns to the bill’s drafting committee, which will accept recommendations for consideration until June 20, before seeking parliamentary approval. The bill is likely to be finalized and submitted to President Sein for approval by June 30.

Suu Kyi, who has always been seen as a hope for democracy and freedoms in Burma, appears to be focusing her efforts on constitutional amendment, which is a right move, but the world expects her also to speak out strongly against the growing Buddhist fundamentalism, which is fast narrowing space for minorities in the country.