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Burma Parliament Must Reject Dangerous Religious Conversion Law

By Burma Partnership  •  June 3, 2014

Jun-26-2013-zarni-mann-the IrrawaddyThe introduction of the draft Law on Religious Conversions (the Law) – published in full in Burmese in state media on 27 May 2014, for the consideration of Parliament and the public – has justifiably triggered a torrent of criticism over the past few days, at national, regional and international levels.  Human Rights Watch has urged the Burma Parliament to drop the Law, while the Asian Human Rights Commission has called for “the strongest opposition to the Law, both in the public domain and in the legislature.”

Part of a package of four bills which comprise measures to “protect race and religion,” the Law is the product of a very powerful lobby in contemporary Burma, namely a coalition of Buddhist monks known as the “Organization for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief” (the OPRRB), which has been petitioning President Thein Sein and the Burma Government to address the simmering issue of race and religion since religious and communal tensions first broke out in Arakan State almost exactly two years ago.  One of the leaders of the OPRRB, Tilawka Biwuntha, told Radio Free Asia that his organization were pleased with the introduction of the Law.

In fact, the Law will achieve the opposite of what it claims: it will drastically infringe upon the human rights of many in Burma, in the name of protecting race and religion, while in the process flouting international law.  Most notably, it is contrary to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief [emphasis added]”  It also contravenes Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Burma is a State party.

The Law will impose onerous restrictions on Burma citizens wishing to change their religion by requiring such people to obtain prior permission from local authorities, which may of course be arbitrarily denied.  Furthermore, the Law’s enactment would exacerbate already worrying levels of religious and communal discrimination and violence and further threaten the security of religious minorities, especially Muslims.  Finally, the Law represents an unwelcome, unnecessary and illegal intrusion on the part of the Burma Government on the private domain, namely the personal choices of Burma citizens as to which religion, faith and spiritual beliefs to adhere to.  Following so quickly on the heels of the controversial census, which also asked gratuitous questions about religion and ethnicity, the Law unquestionably establishes a disturbing trend: an inclination to exercise total control over Burma people’s status and choices, in contrast to the Burma Government’s stated democratic objectives.

Burma Partnership calls upon the international community – governments, donors, civil society organizations, business partners and investors, and relevant UN agencies – to insist that the Burma Government withdraws the Law and that the Burma Parliament rejects it in any event.  Equally vital is that voices of authority within the country condemn the Law, as more than 150 women’s group networks and civil society organizations did on 6 May 2014.  Most importantly, the people of Burma – Buddhists and non-Buddhists – should categorically reject the Law and the currents of hatred, intolerance and discrimination that have brought this ugly and draconian piece of legislation to the surface.  It is vital to show Burma’s religious extremists that the vast majority of people in Burma stand for peace, tolerance and equality, regardless of faith and ethnicity.

It is imperative that Burma steps back from the abyss of religious conflict, and that those in power do their utmost to ensure that the new Burma is a country for all Burmese, not just the Buddhist majority.  Genuine equality and respect for human rights are cornerstones of a true democracy; the Law shows that Burma still has an awfully long way to go.

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