Myanmar's 'Religious Protection' Laws: Widening The Rift


Myanmar's 'Religious Protection' Laws: Widening The Rift

Dr Lynn Kuok

18 May 2015

In the run up to the general election, ethnic and religious minorities need to be protected in Myanmar, but concerns remain over the weight of the law behind new 'religious protection' laws, writes Dr Lynn Kuok.

The initial euphoria over political and economic opening in Myanmar since President Thein Sein's semi-civilian government came to power in early 2011 has been replaced by cautious optimism or even concern as reforms in Myanmar have slowed and some say taken a turn for the worse.

Slowing progress is to a certain extent understandable in that the government has already picked most of the low-hanging fruit of democratic reform and difficult structural reforms remain.

The general election at the end of 2015 further complicates matters. It heightens anxieties over which communities will come out as winners and which as losers. In this respect, religion has been a salient fault line along which groups have organised themselves as they seek greater influence.

Political opening has also allowed pre-existing tensions to surface: religious conflict is not new to Myanmar—Muslims have been targeted since the 1930s—but there has been an increase in conflict between Buddhists and Muslims since tensions between Arakanese Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted in violence in Myanmar's western Rakhine State in May 2012.

New laws could further worsen religious relations.

In an earlier commentary and report, I addressed the causes of religious tensions and suggested ways the Myanmar government could seek to manage and resolve them. Here, I focus on recent developments which represent a worrying turn insofar as President Thein Sein's government appears to be taking steps towards employing the strong arm of the law in ways that would not only be unhelpful in resolving tensions, but could further worsen religious relations by institutionalising practices of discrimination and reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices.

In December 2014, the President's Office announced its submission of four bills, collectively known as the 'National Race and Religious Protection' package, to the Myanmar parliament for review. The Interfaith Marriage Bill requires a Buddhist woman and a non-Buddhist man wanting to marry to apply for permission from local authorities. The Religious Conversion Bill mandates that someone seeking to convert submit an application and be interviewed by a township registration board to allow it to ascertain whether 'the person truly believes in the said religion'. The Monogamy Bill prohibits polygamy and infidelity. The Population Control Bill gives the state the discretion to designate areas, based on socio-economic indicators, where women would have to wait three years between pregnancies.

All but the Population Control Bill provides that violation of their provisions could result in imprisonment and fines. In the case of the Monogamy Bill, a spouse found guilty of polygamy or infidelity would forfeit all property rights. The Population Control Bill is silent on penalties for breach.

While not all completely devoid of merit (Amnesty International, for instance, seeks an outright rejection of the Religion Conversion Bill and the Interfaith Marriage Bill, but suggests significant revisions to the Population Control Bill and the Monogamy Bill to include adequate safeguards before they are considered let alone adopted), these bills were arrived at under circumstances that suggest that they are aimed against minority communities, particularly the Muslims who are regarded as 'too many, too rich and too different.'

The Muslim community is perceived as growing at a faster rate than the other communities—the prominent Buddhist monk, U Wirathu, describes them as breeding like 'African carp'. They are also accused of using their wealth to attract then convert Buddhist women and engaging in objectionable practices such as marrying four wives.

Buddhist nationalist groups, particularly the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha) which is loosely affiliated to the 969 movement that has been accused of using religion as a guise for xenophobic sentiment, worked with political parties to push for laws circumscribing interfaith marriage, religious conversion, polygamy and excessive population growth. Their formal petition, supported by several million signatures, was submitted to President Thein Sein in July 2013.

The president tasked a commission and the legislature working with the Supreme Court with drafting the bills. Vague wording and the lack of safeguards, however, open the door to potential abuse. In the case of the Population Control Bill, for example, this could involve coerced contraception, sterilisation or abortion.

The laws signal that religious minorities are rightfully viewed as threats.

Arguably one of the most problematic aspects of these bills from a communal relations perspective is that they send a message that minorities like the Muslims are rightfully viewed as threats to Buddhism and wider Myanmar society. This is particularly so given the government's general reluctance to condemn anti-Muslim sentiment.

Critics of the government argue that it is seeking to exploit anti-Muslim feelings for political gain: emphasising religion during the election year may take the focus away from calls to amend Myanmar's constitution, including reducing the political power of the armed forces and allowing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. Critics also argue that the government is motivated by a desire to bolster its Buddhist credentials.

A more benign view is that the government, or at least reformist leaders including the president, is trying to strike a delicate balance between reassuring Buddhist nationalist groups and protecting minorities: by providing Buddhist nationalists with legal avenues for protecting their interests, the government hopes to avoid violence from spilling into the streets.

It is notable that the president initially took no action on the petition for these bills and waited six months before directing work on drafts, suggesting perhaps a degree of ambivalence on these bills. One could cite the decision by some monks to align themselves with MaBaTha's legislative agenda, rather than the 969 movement, which has been associated with anti-Muslim and anti-Christian preaching and violence, as evidence that these bills could help achieve greater stability.

However, the passage of these bills, particularly in their current form, would be misguided. Allaying the fears and insecurities of a majority community at the expense of the minorities through the law will institutionalise discrimination and increase interreligious tensions.

The legal system should protect different religious traditions.

Even if these laws were never enforced, they are still likely to reinforce prejudices and stereotypes of Muslims. If the government's goal is to reconcile different groups and shepherd the country towards a stable and prosperous democracy, the legal system should be employed to protect majority and minority communities alike and to convey the importance of respect for different religious and cultural traditions.

In short, the net result of passing these race and religious bills would be to widen the rift between communities rather than bridge them, with negative consequences for Myanmar's fledging democracy. While it may momentarily satisfy the anxieties of Buddhist nationalists, it would also sow the seeds of future problems.

As Myanmar approaches its 2015 elections, the temptation for the government to adopt measures to achieve short-term stability and increase political support without regard for longer-term consequences will increase. The government must do all it can to resist this temptation. A firm foundation on which to build the Myanmar nation is critical; one structurally flawed from the outset will greatly diminish Myanmar's chances of becoming strong and prosperous.

The law plays a crucial role in influencing norms and values, and in punishing unacceptable behaviour. How it may be employed to protect all communities in Myanmar warrants careful and considered attention.


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The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.