Religious freedom is being debated in the South-East Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the government is considering a new law that would require Burmese citizens who plan to convert to another religion to first gain the permission of the government’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Immigration & Population, National Committee for Woman’s Affairs and wait 90 days. The text of the bill was posted in government-owned newspapers for debate.
The bill is ostensibly aimed toward the outlawed minority population of Rohingya Muslims who have been the target of sectarian violence in recent years. The small Rohingya population of 140,000, which has lived in Rakhine state along the western border of Myanmar for generations, has been denied citizenship by the Burmese government. They are considered to be Bengalese squatters by the majority of Burmese living in Rakhine. The bill would effectively ban Rohingya from converting to Buddhism, and thus claiming Burmese citizenship, without government approval.
The bill has been denounced by human rights groups and the United Nations as an infringement on the right to religious freedom. The UN special rapporteur on religious freedom, Heiner Bielefeldt, called the move “illegitimate and incompatible” with international standards of human rights. To human rights groups, the bill amounts to government sponsored religious discrimination.
The bill, known as the Religious Conversion Law, is the latest in a growing trend in recent years toward religious intolerance and violence against Muslims in the majority Buddhist nation of 60 million. In January, Buddhist monks went on a murderous rampage in Rakhine state, killing 48 minority Rohingya Muslims. The attacks were in retaliation for the death of a Buddhist police officer.
Violence erupted again in March during a UN sponsored national census when Burmese attacked members of the UN mission and aid workers whom they believed were sympathetic to the outlawed Rohingya. The attacks were carried out on international aid stations and buildings, causing the evacuation of 70 staff members to Sittwe, the state capital. Over the last two years, over 200 Rohingya have died from the sectarian violence in the state. The Rohingya currently live in squalid, isolated camps for internal refugees because of the violence.
When violence erupted in March, the Burmese government kicked international aid workers out of the region, including Doctors Without Borders, which was providing medical services to 700,000 Burmese in the state. A recent visit by a UN special envoy to the region called conditions in the refugee camps “deplorable.” The government of Myanmar has so far refused to let aid workers return. Once praised by the international community for its commitment to democratic reforms, Myanmar is now the focus of international condemnation for its lack of protection for the minority Muslim group and infringements of religious freedom.
The bill being debated also highlights the growing political power of the Buddhist clergy in the country. The draft bill was sponsored by a group of Buddhist monks called the Organization for the Protection of National Race and Religion which met in January in Mandalay demanding a “fortress” of Buddhism in Rahkine which other religions won’t be able to destroy. Recently, the Minister of Religious Affairs, Hsan Hsint, was fired from his position after he oversaw a raid on a Buddhist monastery in Yangon where five monks were arrested over an ownership dispute. The firing was widely thought to have been brought about by the Buddhist clergy.
A recent survey of Burmese citizens by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs revealed mixed feelings regarding the proposed Religious Conversion Law. Some believe the law will protect Buddhism from false-believers who should be punished, while others decry the government’s intrusion into what should be a personal matter. One Burmese woman who had married a Muslim recounted the animosity she received from his family when she did not want to convert to Islam. The government would do better by proposing measures to protect women from domestic violence, she said. The Burmese human rights activist Zin Mar Aung denounced the bill, saying it would lead to police sponsored inquisitions. She has received death threats from Buddhist extremists for her views.
The rise of sectarian violence and religious intolerance in Myanmar has drawn international attention to the South-East Asian country. As Buddhist Myanmar debates the merits of a bill challenging religious freedom, international organizations see it as a sign of more future trouble for the minority Rohingya.
By Steve Killings