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Burma: Law Purporting to Protect Race and Religion Proposed

(Mar. 17, 2014) In response to a petition signed by 1.3 million people, on March 7, 2014, Burmese President Thein Sein called for a new commission to work with the high court to write a law on protection of race and religion. He had forwarded versions of several laws, created by lawyers working with Buddhist monks in the nationalist 969 movement, to Parliament in February 2014. At that time the Speaker of Parliament, Shwe Mann, returned the draft, arguing that the executive branch should write proposed laws and then send them for parliamentary consideration. (Lawi Weng, Thein Sein Orders Commission, Court, to Draft “Protection of Religion” Law, THE IRRAWADDY (Mar. 7, 2014).) The 969 movement, in addition to being ultra nationalist, is known for promoting Buddhism and expressing its concern about the influence of Islam in the country. (Nathan G. Thompson, The 969 Movement and Burmese Anti-Muslim Nationalism in Context, TURNING WHEEL MEDIA (July 16, 2013).)

The proposed laws, as drafted, would forbid conversion to another faith, limit the number of children a couple could have, and impose an obligation on Buddhist women planning to marry men from other religious groups to obtain permission from both their parents and local government officials. In addition, there are measures to end polygamy, which is already outlawed in Burma. (Weng, supra.)

Thein Sein announced that some of the issues would be considered by a commission and others by the judiciary. According to Pe Than, a lawmaker from the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party, Sein’s “commission will take two issues: that one man is only able to have one wife and converting to another religion. The other two issues – interfaith marriage and restricting population – he will let the Union [Supreme] Court draft.” (Id.) Pe Than added that it was unprecedented for the Court to have a role in law-making. (Id.) The term “rakhine” refers to an ethnic minority Buddhist group living in the western part of Burma. The same region also is home to the Rohingya, an Islamic group. (People-in-Country Profile, THE JOSHUA PROJECT (last visited Mar. 10, 2014; select country and group name to reach profiles).)

Pe Than described the proposed laws as designed to ease the fear that Buddhism is threatened in Burma by the Islamic minority; in 2012 violence between the groups spread from Rakine State to other parts of the country and tensions remain strong. (Weng, supra.) After saying he would support the law “as we all need to protect our race,” Pe Than added “one thing about protection of race is that while we need to protect our fence, we should not disturb other people’s fence.” (Id.)

The proposal has been criticized by Htet Myat, a Burmese writer who at one time was a political prisoner. He said that the legislation was unnecessary and designed to make Buddhism the national religion. He went on to point out that the law, if enacted as proposed, would limit the rights of Buddhist women and “also abuses the right to freedom of religion … .” He also argued that Buddhism is not under threat. (Shwe Aung, Race, Religion Protection Bills Create ‘Needless’ Restrictions: Htet Myat, DVB (Mar. 1, 2014).)