Wednesday, July 2, 2014

RLPB 267. Burma (Myanmar): proposed Religious Conversion Law

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 267 | Wed 02 Jul 2014

By Elizabeth Kendal

On 27 May the Burmese government published its proposed Religious Conversion Law in the state-owned newspapers, along with an appeal for input from citizens by 20 June. However, the government gave citizens only a fax number, very few Burmese citizens have a fax. Despite this, a debate over religious freedom is heating up, thanks primarily to the efforts of independent media, bloggers and civil society groups. The Religious Conversion Law is one of four laws packaged under the Race and Religion Protection Bill, introduced by the Ministry of Religious Affairs which, according to its website, is committed openly to the 'purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [religious doctrine]'. The Race and Religion Protection Bill, which targets religious conversion, inter-marriage, polygamy and birth rate, is the result of lobbying by the Buddhist nationalist monks of 'Mabatha', the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion. [See RLPB 253, March Update, for background.] A drafting committee will now consider citizens' responses before submitting a final draft to the parliament. A parliamentary vote is expected before the end of 2014.

The proposed Religious Conversion Law mandates that Burmese residents may not convert to another religion unless they first obtain a permit. Boards will be established at the town level, empowered to scrutinise all requests and issue or deny permits. The issue is especially serious because in Burma a person's religion is registered and appears on their official Identity Card and this in turn determines their rights. Human Rights Asia reports: 'Under section 3 of the draft law, the inquisitorial boards will consist, at the township level, of the head of religious affairs (chairperson), the head of the national registration department (deputy chairperson), the deputy administrator of the township and a person of his choice, the chairperson of the women's affairs federation, and a member of the education department. Under section 7(a) at least four of these persons form a quorum with which to interrogate someone seeking to convert her or his religion.' Section 7(b) mandates that the interrogation shall take place within 90 days of an application. 'Following this inquisition, the board will either issue or deny a permit with which to convert.' Furthermore, anybody applying to convert 'with the intention of insulting or destroying a religion' could be jailed for up to two years. And, in terms reminiscent of other South Asian anti-conversion laws, people who 'compel' others to convert through 'undue influence or pressure' would be liable to one year in jail.

The bill is designed primarily to stop Buddhists from converting out of Buddhism and to stop stateless Rohingya Muslims from converting to Buddhism for the purpose of gaining citizenship. Meanwhile, the Inter-marriage Bill (the draft of which has not yet been released) is aimed primarily at stopping Muslim men from marrying Buddhist women, although when combined with an anti-conversion law, it will impact lives negatively across the nation. Though popular with Buddhist nationalists, the law is attracting considerable opposition. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has so far declined to give its opinion on the proposed bill, the Chin National Democratic Party has declared its opposition on the grounds that the bill not only directly violates Burma's constitution but is 'simply unacceptable' in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic country. [The Chin nation is a predominantly Christian ethnic nation within Burma.]

In a joint statement issued on 12 June an alliance of 81 human rights and religious groups led by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) called on the Burmese government to 'immediately scrap' the law which it said violates fundamental universal and constitutional rights by granting authorities 'sweeping powers' over an individual's choice of faith. As the alliance rightly notes, the Religious Conversion Bill raises the prospect of 'arbitrary arrest and detention for those wishing to convert from Theravada Buddhism'. Also, as the Advocacy Director of the CHRO, Rachel Fleming, notes: 'The broad wording of the provision about exerting "undue influence or pressure" on another to convert may effectively criminalise proselytising, especially when we consider that Township-level officials are given sweeping powers to make such assessments. This could potentially lead to Chin Christian missionaries and others being imprisoned for up to one year under this law.'

On 16 June church leaders in Hakha town, the capital of Chin State, led some 800 local believers in prayer over the proposed bill.  'This draft can hinder the progress of Christianity,' warned Pastor Bawi Cung Lian. 'So we're holding a prayer meeting to oppose the adoption of this law and change the mindset of concerned authorities and the President.'


* change the mindset of the authorities and the President so they will see that this legislation is unwise and repressive and will work only to hurt the people and empower the monks. 'The king's heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.' (Proverbs 21:1 ESV)

* redeem this stressful situation and use it to awaken many to the great value and importance of religious freedom and to the wisdom and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

* bless, strengthen, protect and provide for Chin leaders as they lead the way through prayer, advocacy and their voice in parliament.

* raise up and magnify many more voices for liberty; may those promoting Buddhist nationalism and fear not control the debate.

* raise up many more workers for his harvest field (Matthew 9:37-38); may Burma's diverse peoples find peace through Jesus Christ. For Christ Jesus is our peace, for he makes us one, breaking down  in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility ... reconciling us to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility  (Ephesians 2:13-16 excerpts, paraphrased).


As the government's drafting committee finalises Burma's Religious Conversion Bill, a debate is heating up over the value of religious liberty. Leading the Buddhist nationalist cause and championing repression are various groups of Buddhist nationalist monks,  particularly 'Mabatha' and '969' along with various Buddhist elites and many MPs. Leading the fight for liberty are pro-democracy bloggers, independent media, religious minorities and human rights organisations, particularly the (Christian) Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO). The bill is part of a four-law package aimed at protecting and promoting Burma's Buddhist identity. If enacted, the law would effectively prevent conversions and criminalise witness and evangelism. The Chin National Democratic Party has declared its vigorous opposition to the law as being 'simply unacceptable' in a multi-faith, multi-ethnic country. Please pray for Burma and its Church.


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah speaks to Christians today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012)