JAKARTA – The Myanmar Parliament’s passage of two bills targeting religious minorities constitutes an attack on religious freedom and threatens to stoke inter-communal tensions and violence less than three months ahead of critical general elections, said ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) today.
The bills, which place restrictions on religious conversion and polygamy, are the final two pieces of legislation in the so-called ‘Race and Religion Protection’ package, which has been pushed by Buddhist hardliners.
“They should really be called the ‘Race and Religion Discrimination’ bills, as they are fundamentally discriminatory and represent a grave threat to religious freedom and minority rights in Myanmar,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of parliament in Malaysia. “They run counter to international norms and appear purposely designed to fuel rising Buddhist extremism in the country.”
The Religious Conversion Bill, passed this week, requires all individuals wishing to change their religion to seek permission from regulatory bodies, made up of local officials authorized to question converts to determine if their decisions are voluntary or coerced.
“Requiring government permission to convert violates international standards of religious freedom and the right to personal choice,” Santiago said. “This bill was flawed from the start, yet the government and ruling party moved forward anyways, making no attempt to address human rights concerns or bring the legislation into line with international standards.”
The second draft law passed this week, the Monogamy Bill, criminalizes polygamy and extramarital affairs. Parliamentarians noted that criminalization of extramarital relations constitutes a violation of individual privacy rights, while the bill’s prohibition of polygamy is redundant, as existing statutes already deem the practice illegal.
“The military government is playing a dangerous game. It appears to be purposefully pandering to sentiments of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism for its own political gain and at the expense of the rights of millions of Myanmar’s minority citizens,” Santiago added.
In May, APHR criticized the passage of another bill in the package, the Population and Control Healthcare Bill, which parliamentarians argued represents a step toward ethnic cleansing by allowing the government to institute restrictions on reproductive rights in specific areas of the country.
Another of the draft laws, the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, was passed by parliament in July. It places restrictions on interfaith marriage, requiring interfaith couples to obtain permission from local authorities in order to wed. Such regulations violate the rights of women and minority residents in Myanmar, parliamentarians cautioned.
APHR said that the passage of all four bills institutionalizes discrimination against religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, and threatens to enflame increasing anti-Muslim sentiment nationwide. Violent attacks on Muslims have taken place throughout the country in recent years, and the government’s new moves could lead to more violence, particularly as elections approach, APHR warned.
“Myanmar is at a precarious moment in its political development. The passage of these bills threatens the country’s democratic future by undermining the fundamental rights of its people and fueling already rampant religious hatred, which could lead to violence,” Santiago said.