May 27, 2014 – Myanmar is considering restrictions on religious conversion, according to a draft bill released in state media on Tuesday, the first of several controversial proposals stemming from a rising tide of Buddhist nationalism.
The proposed legislation, put forward by the ministry of religion and yet to be debated in parliament, would require people who want to change their faith to get approval from a specially created local authority.
“No one shall apply to convert religion with the intention to insult, defame, destroy or misuse any religion,” said the report in the Myanmar-language newspaper The Mirror.
It added that under the proposed law any violation could attract a two-year prison sentence.
Religion has become a deeply sensitive issue in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, where several outbreaks of anti-Muslim violence in the last two years have left around 250 people dead.
The proposals on religious conversion are part of a wider series of draft bills being considered by government ministries and suggested by President Thein Sein after a campaign by extremist monks.
A highly controversial plan to impose restrictions on interfaith marriage is also being considered but details have yet to be revealed.
Rights groups have reacted with alarm to the proposed marriage curbs, saying they would threaten religious freedom and women’s rights.
Thein Sein, who took power in 2011, has presided over the former junta-run country’s opening to the world and ushered in sweeping political and economic changes that have spurred the West to lift most sanctions.
But religious unrest and conflict in ethnic minority areas have cast a shadow over the reforms.
The draft law on religious conversion also says that “anyone has the right to freely convert” and includes a penalty of six months in prison for anyone trying to stop someone else from converting.
It was given a muted welcome by firebrand monk Wirathu, whose Buddhist nationalist campaigns have been accused of stoking anti-Muslim anger.
“It does not meet our satisfaction completely. But we accept it because it can act as a protection,” he said.
The report called for public suggestions on the proposed bill in the coming weeks. It is not clear when it will be discussed by parliament, which resumes on May 28.
The constitution says every citizen has an equal right freely to practise their religion.
Myanmar has already faced criticism from rights groups over a controversial “two-child policy” in parts of the western state of Rakhine.
Minority Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine face restrictions that have led the United Nations to consider them as one of the world’s most persecuted peoples.
Two waves of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine in 2012 left around 140,000 displaced, mainly Rohingya.
Sectarian bloodshed — mostly targeting Muslims — has since spread to other parts of the country and exposed deep divisions that were largely suppressed under decades of military rule.