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BURMA/MYANMAR: Draft anti-religious conversion law released

BURMA/MYANMAR: Draft anti-religious conversion law released

On 27 May 2014 the state media in Burma (Myanmar) published the latest in a series of anti-democratic laws for the national legislature to consider: the Law Relating to Religious Conversion (Draft).

Like other anti-democratic draft laws brought through the legislature since the country’s shift from overt to covert military rule, this new draft law disingenuously denies precisely the rights that it claims to protect: those concerned with religious freedom. It denies rights to religious freedom by proposing to establish, at the local level, boards that will scrutinize the credentials of any person wanting to change his or her religion. No formal recognition will be accorded to a change in religion without someone getting a permit from one of these boards—which matters greatly in a country where religion is recorded on all identity documents, and questions of inheritance are decided with reference to so-called customary religious law.

Under section 3 of the draft law, the inquisitorial boards will consist, at the township level, of the head of religious affairs (chairperson), the head of the national registration department (deputy chairperson), the deputy administrator of the township and a person of his choice, the chairperson of the women’s affairs federation, and a member of the education department. Under section 7(a) at least four of these persons form a quorum with which to interrogate someone seeking to convert her or his religion. Under section 7(b), the interrogation, to take place within 90 days of an application, will inquire about the extent to which the person wanting to convert has grasped the “essence” of the religion to which she or he wishes to convert; its cultural practices relating to marriage, divorce and the separation of property, and inheritance and child custody. Following this inquisition, the board will either issue or deny a permit with which to convert.

In short, someone wanting to change religion in Burma will, if this law is passed, have to submit herself or himself to an inquisition by an assortment of government officials, who will arbitrarily decide whether or not to grant the person interrogated what amounts to an official permission slip to change her or his religion.

It goes without saying that the draft law is designed to prevent Buddhists from converting to other religions, especially Islam, by creating such onerous requirements and establishing through a process of interrogation and intimidation that conversion will be practically impossible. In particular, it aims to stop non-Muslim women from marrying Muslims, by preventing them from converting to Islam before or after marriage. On the other hand, one cannot imagine much resistance on the part of these scrutinizing bodies to the conversion of Christians, Muslims or animists to Buddhism.

On the pretext of protecting the rights of citizens, this law is a further step to their withdrawal. In particular, it is on the pretext of protecting the rights of vulnerable young (Buddhist) women that this law is being put forward to the legislature, and we need not think long or hard to recall other governments in Burma that used exactly the same pretext in their own programs for the denial of rights: the military dictatorships from 1988 to 2011 throughout represented themselves as consisting of benevolent, paternal statesmen above all concerned for the lives, morality and chastity of their young, female citizenry. This population was not allowed to speak, but it was spoken for by these regimes and their collaborators, just as the boards proposed under the current law will presume to speak for the knowledge of persons wanting to convert as to the contents and character of the religions to which they seek to convert. Even more than patriotism, the claim to be protecting the rights of vulnerable young (Buddhist) women is in Burma the refuge of the scoundrel.

The Asian Human Rights Commission calls for the strongest opposition to this law in Burma, both in the public domain, and in the legislature. It calls for this opposition not only as a matter of concern for the rights of minority religions and the rights of people who want to convert to them, but also as a matter of concern for every person in Burma, since the denials of rights to some groups precipitate the denial of the same to the whole, and since this latest draft law is only the latest in a series of highly regressive, anti-democratic laws to come to Burma’s legislature, speaking to a trend not towards further democratisation, as some ill-informed and naïve observers have claimed, but in the opposite direction, towards the entrenchment of authoritarianism, albeit in more diverse and less explicit forms than in earlier periods.

The AHRC also calls for strong opposition to the law among civil society groups and those concerned with religious freedoms throughout the region, and in international agencies. Although to the outside world the government of Burma will present this law, like laws on protests and farmland before it, as a new development in building a modern and progressive society, the purpose of this technique is to conceal precisely the opposite type of law from view: one aimed at keeping Burma stuck in its past, rather than moving towards a new and better future.


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