More than 80 civil society groups from across the world called on the Myanmar government on June 12th to withdraw a proposed law on religious conversion, saying that if adopted, it would violate fundamental human rights and could incite communal violence.
The draft law, which was published by Myanmar’s state-funded media on May 27th, outlines a rigorous procedure for those wanting to convert from one religion to another by requiring them to obtain permission from a panel of government officials. It threatens converts with a prison term of up to two years on grounds of “insulting or destroying a religion” and those found guilty of “influencing or pressuring” someone to convert with a prison term of up to one year.
According to the joint statement released by campaigners, the implementation of this law will increase the chances of arbitrary arrest and detention of those wishing to convert from Theravada Buddhism, the faith of most people in Myanmar, to another religion or no religion at all. The campaigners believe that the broad wording of the law is likely to be exploited in proselytizing Myanmar.
“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” in Myanmar, read the statement.
On June 11th, Robert George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the proposed law in Myanmar that aims at protecting the country’s majority Buddhist identity by restricting religious conversions and prohibiting marriages between people of different communities has “no place in the 21st century” and should be quashed.
While George called the proposed law “irreparably flawed,” the U.S. government agency said that it risked stoking violence against religious minorities in Myanmar including Muslims and Christians.
“If the laws are passed, Washington should factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship with Burma (Myanmar),” it said.
The Myanmar government began a parliamentary session in May 2014 to debate its draft law against religious conversions. It has said it will accept propositions until June 20. This development has taken place amidst increasing sectarian violence in the country. Buddhists have been clashing with Muslims since June 2012 leading to the death of at least 237 people and the displacement of 140,000 others.
The religious tensions have been growing alongside a movement led by nationalist Buddhist monks who identify themselves as 969 and this has been a matter of concern in Washington. George said that his commission recently recommended Washington to continue looking at Myanmar as a “country of particular concern” for severely violating religious freedom. On the other hand, the Myanmar government is yet to publish the drafts of three other bills that deal with banning polygamy, introducing population control measures and curbing interfaith marriages.