Religious minorities under threat as Burma President submits bills

December 15, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

Burma ChristiansBurma, December 11, 2014: Burmese President Thein Sein has been criticised by human rights associations for approving a draft bill that curbs conversion to other religions and marriages between Buddhist women and men of other religions. Initially proposed by nationalist Buddhist monks who form the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, a group also known as Ma Ba Tha, the bill was signed on 3 December and submitted to Parliament for final approval.

If approved, the new bill will force anyone who converts to a different religion to seek a range of permissions from the authorities, or face penalties (not yet stipulated). And if a Buddhist woman wishes to marry a man from another religion, they must first apply to local authorities for permission. A public notice of the engagement will be produced and only if no objections are made can the couple get married. If they fail to follow this procedure, they could face a jail sentence of up to two years.

Although the new bill does not mention any religion in particular, some commentators believe that the new restrictions are proposed in a bid to prevent Muslim men from coercing Buddhist women to convert to Islam through marriage. Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in 2012 saw more than 200 deaths.  It will also introduce other restrictions on family life.

Opponents of the draft bill have criticised it on the basis that it is discriminatory towards women and religious minorities. The proposed restrictions on changing religion would also affect Buddhists who want to convert to Christianity.  Speaking out on the subject, the Archbishop of Yangon, Charles Bo, said that “the right to marry, convert and vote are inviolable human rights”.

According to Human Rights Watch, improvements have been made in terms of Burma’s human rights record since Thein Sein was sworn in as president in 2011. Several hundred political prisoners have been freed and some laws have been amended. However, many repressive laws remain in place and the religious liberty situation remains a serious concern.

The US Secretary of State re-designated the country as a “Country of Particular Concern” with regard to religious liberty in August 2011, for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and again in 2014 for serious abuses against ethnic minority Christians in Kachin state during recent military interventions there. According to the 2013 report produced by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, there is evidence of “the targeting of religious venues in military operations, forced labor of church members, restrictions on building places of worship, destruction of religious venues and artifacts, and prohibitions on some religious ceremonies”.

– barnabas team

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