International civil society organisations, human rights watchdogs and advocacy groups have issued a united call for Burma’s government to drop its proposed legislation that places restrictions on an individual’s right to freedom of religion.
An alliance of 81 organisations pressed that Burma’s government, led by President U Thein Sein, scrap the Religious Conversion Law, saying that it is an attack on fundamental human rights.
“If adopted, this law would violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities in the country,” the alliance of 81 organisations said in an released statement. “This new piece of draft legislation appears to legitimize the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities, and if adopted, will further institutionalize discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.”
The Religious Conversion Law, first published for all to see in state-run media on the 27th of May, proposes a process in which Burma’s citizens would require official permission to convert their religion. The law would also grant officials the power to determine whether someone seeking to convert was doing so of their own free will.
Citizens found to be converting with the intent of “insulting or destroying” a religion faced two years in prison. The alliance said that this raised the prospect of, “arbitrary arrest and detention for those wishing to convert from Theravada Buddhism – the faith of the majority in Burma/Myanmar – to a minority religion, or no religion at all.” The alliance added: “The broad wording of this provision may effectively outlaw proselytizing in the country.”
Freedom of religion is enshrined as a human right. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”
In a statement released this month, the New York based Human Rights Watch, condemned the law, which is part of of newly proposed legislation placing restrictions on inter-faith marriage, religious freedoms, polygamy and family planning.
HRW said that laws, which discriminate on religion, could lead to the “repression and violence against Muslims and other religious minorities.”
The suit of laws has been drafted under the instruction of President Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, Shwe Mann. The laws were first proposed by a group called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion which has alleged links to the extremist nationalist Buddhist ‘969’ movement which has gained international notoriety for anti-Muslim slogans, calls to boycott Muslim stores and ‘hate speech’.
The draft law includes a provision granting sweeping powers to the Ministry of Religious Affairs to issue further directives following the implementation of the legislation, though it is yet unclear what this would mean if the legislation passes into law. The alliance noted in their statement, however, that a key objective listed on the Ministry’s website proclaimed its dedication to the “purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [religious doctrine].”
Rachel Fleming, Advocacy Director at the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), claimed that the law promoted ethnic hatred.
“The proposed law appears to legitimize the views of extreme nationalists and those promoting hate-speech, which is why it should be scrapped immediately,” she said in an interview with Karen News, “the broad wording of the provision about exerting ‘undue influence or pressure’ on another to convert may effectively criminalize proselytizing, especially when we consider that Township-level officials are given sweeping powers to make such assessments. This could potentially lead to [ethnic] Chin Christian missionaries and others being imprisoned for up to one year under this law.”
The law also effectively contradicted Burma’s flawed 2008 constitution Ms Fleming told Karen News. “The preamble to the draft law states that, ‘there is a need for transparency and a system in place under Article 34 of the Constitution to regulate freedom of religion and the freedom to choose and convert religion.’ In reality it places severe restrictions on the right to freedom of religion or belief.”
Ms Fleming confirmed to Karen News that the laws were connected to the ‘969’ movement, and warned that all of Burma’s citizens should be concerned over the law. “Everyone in Burma should be concerned about this draft law, as it restricts a basic human right. Whether someone wanted to convert from Theravada Buddhism to another school of Buddhism – or decided that they no longer follow any belief system – they would be faced with these restrictions under this law. We urge people to voice their opposition to this proposed legislation, and to speak up for human rights.”