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Burma; United Nations: Experts Oppose Draft Law on Religious Conversion

(June 26, 2014) On June 20, 2014, independent human rights experts from the United Nations asked Burma not to go ahead with a proposed law that would restrict religious conversion in the predominantly Buddhist country. The proposal would make conversions difficult by creating a process of application and approval for those wanting to change faiths. The experts argue that it is the right of each person to freely choose or change their religion. (Myanmar: UN Experts Alarmed at Draft Bill Imposing Restrictions on Religious Conversion, UN NEWS CENTRE (June 20, 2014).)

Heiner Bielefeldt, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion, stated that government interference in the right to change religion is “illegitimate and incompatible with international human rights standards. … Freedom of religion or belief is a human right, irrespective of State approval, and respect for freedom of religion or belief does not depend on administrative registration procedures.” (Id.) Rita Izsák, the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, stressed that the proposed law could have a negative effect on the religious freedom of minority groups in the country. The Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar (Burma), Yanghee Lee, sees the proposal as part of a “worrying backtracking” on human rights in the country, which also includes arbitrary arrests and the prosecution of activists and journalists who are perceived to be critical of the regime. (Id.)

The draft was created following the preparation of several versions of the proposal by the President of Burma, Thein Sein, and the creation in March of a new commission to work on the project. A petition signed by 1.3 million people had been presented to the President, asking for legislation on protection of race and religion. Buddhist monks in the ultra-nationalist 969 Movement advocated for such laws. (Constance A. Johnson, Burma: Law Purporting to Protect Race and Religion Proposed, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (Mar. 17, 2014).)

In addition to the U.N. experts, various human rights and civil society groups, including the Chin National Democratic Party (CNDP), have criticized the draft law as violating religious freedom guarantees in the Constitution. (Chin Party Slams Religious Law Proposals, CHINLAND GUARDIAN (June 22, 2014), available at DVB.) The CNDP cites article 34 of the 2008 Constitution, which states, “[e]very citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practise religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” (Id.; Ministry of Information, Constitution of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 2008, art. 34, ONLINE BURMA/MYANMAR LIBRARY.) The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma, the majority of whom are Christian. (Sam Bagnall, Burma’s “Forgotten” Chin People Suffer Abuse, BBC NEWS (Apr. 19, 2010).)

The draft law on conversion is part of a package of measures being promoted under the rubric of protecting race and religion; another one of those measures regulates inter-faith marriages. CNDP leader Salai Ceu Bik has said, “[i]t is simply unacceptable to limit the individual rights to choose a religion or to somehow restrict marriage between people from different religious backgrounds. What this law would do is to further restrict what little freedom there exists in this country.” (Chin Party Slams Religious Law Proposals, supra.)