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Burma invites public to review faith conversion bill

While Buddhism is Burma's predominant religion, the country is home to many faiths including Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. In this file photo, religious leaders pray for those who died during the 1988 democratic uprising. Rangoon, August 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

By Paing Soe
May 28, 2014

Burma’s Religious Conversion bill was released by state media for public review on Tuesday. The bill’s drafting committee will field recommendations until 20 June before seeking parliamentary approval.

The committee was tasked in March to draft two of four bills belonging to a “National Race and Religion Protection” package, which was initially proposed by a coalition of nationalist monks in June 2013.

Other bills proposed in the package are the Marriage Act, the Population Control Act and the Monogamy Act. Full text of the other bills has not yet been made publicly available.

The seven-chapter conversion bill would establish township-level “registration” boards and grant them powers to examine and approve religious conversions. The draft states that “every person has the freedom to convert”, but requires that applicants must be over the age of 18.

Those wishing to change their religion must submit an application providing personal details such as family members’ names and faiths, and a reason for wishing to convert. The registration board would then interview the applicant to determine the sincerity of their faith and assess whether the conversion is voluntary.

Registration board members will be culled from existing township officials; immigration, administrative, religious and women’s affairs officials will be appointed to the board and will select two community leaders to serve beside them. At least four board members must be present for interviews.

Following board approval, applicants will be issued a certificate and must report changes to local immigration authorities.

The draft details punishment for violations, which include conversion with intent to insult or damage any other religion, forced or coerced conversion and harassment meant to influence choice of faith.

The pretext of protecting civilians against involuntary conversion has been called into question by several rights and legal experts, who see the bill as little more than a supplement to the other laws in the package. The age limit in particular is seen by some as an indicator that the conversion law is meant to cause further obstacle to interfaith couples.

“There is no clear indication as to the point of this law, but we can guess what they’re aiming for,” said Aung Thein, a distinguished Burmese lawyer. “The 18-year age limit is relevant to the Marriage Law.”

Aung Thein argues that while the age regulation would fortify curbs on interfaith marriage, the bill creates excessive restrictions by requiring citizens to adhere to whatever faith they were born into until they reach the age of 18. Others have taken issue with the collection of personal information, which some see as overly intrusive.

“Every individual has their right to personal freedom,” said Maung Maung Lay, a board member of the Human Rights Defenders and Protectors (HRDP) network. “What religion I follow is my personal choice, and adopting laws to oversee faith and religious conversion is inappropriate from a human rights perspective.”

That the government would require declaring and registering such a personal and apolitical fact contradicts international norms, according to Al Haj Aye Lwin, chief convener of the Islamic Centre of Burma.

“Freedom of faith is a fundamental human right. It is a rare thing in the world to adopt laws on religious conversion and I believe the government should weigh the pros and cons,” he said.

Burma’s government has invited the public to do so by submitting suggestions directly to the drafting committee. They have not, however, responded to requests by opponents for a sit-down discussion of the proposed laws and their repercussions.

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