Burma: Religious conversion law threatens religious freedom
Over 80 organisations from civil society worldwide have called on the government of Burma/Myanmar to scrap proposed legislation that would unlawfully restrict the right to freely choose a religion.
If adopted, this law would violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities in the country.
The draft ‘Religious Conversion Law’, published in state-run media on 27 May 2014, sets out a process for applying for official permission to convert from one religion to another. It grants township-level officials from various government departments sweeping powers to determine whether an applicant has exercised free will in choosing to change religion.
Those found to be applying for conversion “with the intent of insulting or destroying a religion” could be punished by up to two years’ imprisonment, raising the prospect of arbitrary arrest and detention for those wishing to convert from Theravada Buddhism – the faith of the majority in Burma/Myanmar – to a minority religion, or no religion at all.
Compelling an individual to convert to another religion through “undue influence or pressure” could carry a one-year jail penalty. The broad wording of this provision may effectively outlaw proselytising in the country.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is widely recognised as having customary international law status.
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly states that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion includes the freedom to change his or her religion or beliefs.
The 1981 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief calls on States to rescind legislation where necessary to prohibit discrimination on religious grounds, and to take all appropriate measures to combat intolerance on the grounds of religion.
Under instruction from President Thein Sein and the Speaker of the Lower House of Parliament Shwe Mann, the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Mora) drafted the law as part of a package of measures related to marriage, religion, polygamy, and family planning, based on proposals by a Buddhist organisation called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion.
The draft Religious Conversion Law also includes a provision granting powers to Mora to issue further directives and procedural regulations regarding the implementation of the legislation.
Although Mora lists its first objective on its website as “to allow freedom of faith”, its second objective is “for the purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [teachings]”.
The Ministry has also been implicated in imposing restrictive and discriminatory measures on minority religions.
This new piece of draft legislation appears to legitimise the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities, and if adopted, will further institutionalise discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.
We urge the Government to scrap the proposed Religious Conversion Law, and to take the following steps:
- Amend all other legislation to ensure that it incorporates the principles set out in Article 18 of the UDHR, which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”;
- Sign and ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), without reservation to Article 18;
- Sign and ratify the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD);
- Extend official and unconditional invitations to the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief and the UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance to visit the country, and to travel within the country and meet representatives of different communities, political actors and civil society organizations without restriction or hindrance;
- Study and implement the recommendations of the most recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to the UN Human Rights Council, with regard to measures to address collective hate speech;
- Study and implement the recommendations of the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, which was adopted by experts including the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion and the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief in Rabat, Morocco in October 2012;
- Abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs and replace it with an independent and impartial religious affairs commission with a mandate to eliminate all forms of religious discrimination;
- Remove the requirement to list religion on the National Registration Card.
Furthermore, we call on the international community to publicly urge the Government of Burma/Myanmar to immediately scrap the proposed legislation. The international community must make concerted efforts to press the Government to implement the above recommendations as a matter of priority, in order to protect the right to freedom of religion or belief and to prevent further violence against religious minorities.
Abdurrahman Wahid Centre for Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peace
Actions Birmanie Belgium
The Arakan Project
Arunachal Citizens’ Rights (ACR)
Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights
Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact
Austrian Burma Centre
The Branch Foundation
Burma Action Ireland
Burma Campaign UK
Burma Centrum Nederland
Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK
Burmese Women Delhi
Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association
Canterbury Refugee Council
Center Chin Women Organization
Children and Women Trust
Children on the Edge
Chin Baptist Churches USA
Chin Christian Council in Australia
Chin Christian Fellowship in Denmark
Chin Christian Fellowship of Canada
Chin Community in Denmark
Chin Human Rights Organization
Chin Students’ Union, Delhi
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Coalition for Protection of Refugees
COERR of Caritas Thailand
Delhi Burmese Christian Fellowship
Equal Rights Trust
Fahamu Refugee Programme & Dr. Barbara E. Harrell-Bond, OBE
FIDH / International Federation for Human Rights
Free Burma Campaign (South Africa)
Global Chin Christian Fellowship
Human Rights Alliance Pakistan
Health Equity Initiatives
Human Rights Ambassador for Salem-News.com, UK
Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART)
HRWG (Indonesia’s NGO Coalition for International Human Rights Advocacy)
Indigenous Women League Nepal
Institute for Asian Democracy
International State Crime Initiative, King’s College London
Kachin National Organization
Kachin Peace Network
Kachin Women Peace Network
KAMP – National Alliance of Indigenous Peoples Organizations in the Philippines
Kirat Youth Society (KYS)
Minority Rights Organization (MIRO)
Naga Women’s Union
Naiker Associates (Australia)
Norwegian Burma Committee
Partners Relief & Development UK
Pax Romana ICMICA
Penang Stop Human Trafficking Campaign
Physicians for Human Rights
Refugee Council of Australia
Research and Translation Consultancy Cluster
Rohingya Human Rights Monitoring Network – Myanmar
SANRIM Sri Lanka
Stefanus Alliance International
Suaka: Indonesian Civil Society Network for Refugee Rights Protection
Swedish Burma Committee
Tangguyub People Center
Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation
US Campaign for Burma
Victoria Chin Baptist Church – Australia
Zomi Women Union