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BURMA: USCIRF Strongly Condemns Race and Religion Bills

By US Commission on International Religious Freedom  •  January 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) strongly condemns the package of race and religion bills that Burma’s parliament is considering.  These bills would further restrict religious freedom and discriminate against all non-Buddhists, particularly male Muslims, in religious conversions and marriages.  USCIRF criticized a May draft of one of these bills, the religious conversion law, as “irreparably flawed” and in contravention of “Burma’s international commitments to protect freedom of religion or belief.”

“Discrimination against non-Buddhists through law, regulation and practice already is pervasive in Burma.  Instead of countering prejudices, these bills would further entrench and legalize discrimination,” said Katrina Lantos Swett, USCIRF Chair.  “The bills risk fanning the flames of intolerance and violence against Muslims and other religious minorities.  If they become law, Burma will be taking a major step backward.”

During USCIRF’s August trip to Burma (click here to read the report), Commissioners M. Zuhdi Jasser and Eric P. Schwartz raised concerns about these bills in meetings with Burmese parliamentarians and representatives of the Union government.

“Rather than protecting individuals’ rights to peacefully practice their faiths, the government of Burma is promoting restrictive, discriminatory measures that violate religious freedoms,” said Lantos Swett.  “The right to change your beliefs and marry a partner of your own choosing are personal decisions not in the scope of government.”

Specific concerns include:

  • The Religious Conversion Bill would force those seeking to convert to give to the newly created Registration Boards an extensive list of personal information, answer intrusive questions, and wait 90 days for approval.
  • The Interfaith Marriage Bill imposes restrictions on marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, including a 14-day waiting period during which time anyone can object to the marriage, and the court reviewing the objections has the power to deny the marriage.  Non-Buddhist men are denied numerous rights in the case of divorce and face criminal penalties if they ask their Buddhist wife to convert.  Under the bill, non-Buddhist men also bear most of the financial and/or criminal penalties, including prison sentences.

USCIRF concluded in its 2014 Annual Report chapter on Burma (Burmese translation here) that political reforms have not improved legal protections for religious freedom and have done little to curtail anti-Muslim violence, incitement, and discrimination, particularly targeting the Rohingya Muslim minority.  For more than a decade, USCIRF has recommended that Burma be designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for its systematic, egregious and ongoing religious freedom violations.  The U.S. Department of State has designated Burma as a CPC repeatedly since 1999, most recently in July 2014.

To interview a USCIRF Commissioner, please contact USCIRF at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0613.

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