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Myanmar parliament to debate controversial religion laws

December 3, 2014

YANGON: Myanmar’s president has approved a set of controversial draft religious laws inspired by radical Buddhist monks and sent them to parliament, officials said Wednesday, prompting rights groups to voice alarm over the divisive nature of the proposals.

The draft legislation — including curbs on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birth rates — will be debated by MPs and voted on in the coming parliamentary session, according to president’s office director Zaw Htay.

“The president had to draft the bills, but it is (parliament’s) responsibility to enact them,” he told AFP.

Rising Buddhist chauvinism — and the government’s apparent willingness to acquiesce to it — has sparked fears that religion could becoming increasingly politicised as the former junta-run nation heads towards crunch 2015 elections.

The drafts were initially proposed by a group of nationalist monks known as “Mabatha”, or the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, who have been accused of fanning intolerance in Buddhist-majority Myanmar after several outbreaks of violence against minority Muslims.

Opponents of the bills say they are discriminatory.

“These bills claim to be to protect women, but they are drafted against women’s will,” Ma Khin Lay, founder of rights organisation Triangle Women’s Group Support, told AFP. “It is discrimination and control.”

The campaigner, who along with other women’s rights activists has faced threats for her opposition to the bills, said requirements for a host of official permissions would create further opportunities for misuse of power in a state system riddled with corruption.

A draft of the marriage bill was published in Myanmar language state media on Wednesday, laying out a web of rules governing marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths.

Couples would have to apply to local authorities — and the woman’s parents if she is under 20 — and a notice would be displayed publicly announcing the engagement. Only if there were no objections could the nuptials take place.

The penalty for non-compliance would be two years in prison.

The religious conversion draft, published earlier this year, would also require anyone wanting to change religion to seek a slew of bureaucratic permissions.

That bill “has no place in the 21st century”, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which warned that together the proposals risk stoking violence and discrimination.

A Mabatha leaflet claimed the ills of inter-faith marriage range from rape, murder and forced conversion to “not saluting the Myanmar national flag”.

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