RANGOON — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has met with members of civil society groups in Naypyidaw to discuss their concerns with a package of four bills to “protect race and religion.”
Lawmakers from Parliament’s Rule of Law Committee, chaired by Suu Kyi, met on Wednesday for more than two and half hours with 10 civil society representatives who are lobbying against the bills, according to Zin Mar Aung, a human rights activist from the Rainfall Gender Studies Group, who attended the meeting.
The bills to “protect race and religion” are highly controversial in Buddhist-majority Burma. If enacted, they would restrict interfaith marriage and religious conversions, ban polygamy and put forward measures to curb population growth. Activists have received death threats in recent weeks after publicly criticizing the interfaith marriage bill as discriminatory against women and religious minorities.
“We explained our opinions, especially about the interfaith marriage bill and the [religious] conversion bill. Some of us have been threatened by extremist groups, which is totally outside the rule of law. So we discussed how to take steps to promote rule of law,” Zin Mar Aung told The Irrawaddy on Thursday.
“She also sees problems—she mostly agreed with us,” the activist said of Suu Kyi’s response to their concerns about the bills, adding that the opposition leader emphasized the need to ensure that lawmakers consider only proposed legislation that would benefit communities.
Suu Kyi said the Rule of Law Committee only had the authority to make suggestions to Parliament, and would likely follow up after the meeting by submitting a report with recommendations.
On Thursday, 81 civil society groups also urged the Burmese government to scrap one of the four bills that restricts religious conversions. They said the bill, if enacted, would “violate fundamental human rights and could lead to further violence against Muslims and other religious minorities.”
“This new piece of draft legislation appears to legitimize the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities, and if adopted, will further institutionalize discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities,” the groups wrote in a statement, one day after a US government body said “such a law has no place in the 21st century.”
Drafted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and published in state media last month, the religious conversion bill requires government authorities to approve applications for religious conversions, including by questioning applicants to ensure that they truly believe in the new faith. Anyone deemed to be converting “with the intent of insulting or destroying religion” could face up to two years in prison. Those found to have pressured others to convert could be imprisoned for one year.
Burma’s 2008 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs says the bill is intended to protect this freedom by preventing forced conversions.
But the proposed legislation follows a surge of anti-Muslim violence in recent years, and comes amid calls by nationalist Buddhist monks to shun Muslim businesses. The monks, part of a movement known as 969, have warned that the Muslim population is increasing and threatens to destroy the country’s Buddhist culture.
Some critics worry the bills to protect race and religion, which were first proposed by the monks, are specifically intended to prevent Buddhists from converting to Islam.
Religious Affairs Minister Hsan Sint declined to comment on Thursday when asked by The Irrawaddy about the meeting with Suu Kyi and calls to drop the religious conversion bill.
In a list of objectives on its official website, his ministry says it aims to “allow freedom of faith,” but also to promote the “purification, perpetuation, promotion and propagation of the Theravada Buddhist Sasana [teachings].”
The ministry says it supports religious minorities by settling disputes between faiths, making arrangements for non-Buddhists to travel abroad for pilgrimages or religious seminars, and allowing national radio broadcasts of Christian, Islamic and Hindu talks on religious holidays.
The 81 civil society groups—a mix of local groups including the Chin Human Rights Organization and the Kachin Peace Network, as well as international rights groups including Fortify Rights and Physicians for Human Rights—urged the Burmese government to not only scrap the religious conversion bill, but also to abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“Replace it with an independent and impartial religious affairs commission with a mandate to eliminate all forms of religious discrimination,” they said in the statement.
Lawi Weng contributed to this report.