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UN experts slam Myanmar's controversial religious bill

Envoys say new law would be a backward step on human rights

<p>Myanmar's Buddhist monks have led support for new legislation restricting religious conversions (picture: AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)</p>

Myanmar's Buddhist monks have led support for new legislation restricting religious conversions (picture: AFP Photo/Soe Than Win)

  • John Zaw, Yangon and Steve Finch, Bangkok
  • Myanmar
  • June 23, 2014
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UN rights experts have urged Myanmar to scrap a controversial draft religious conversion bill that would restrict religious conversions. Their comments come as international pressure mounts on the government to take action to end the persecution of minority Muslims.

Three special envoys – on freedom of religion, minority issues and human rights in Myanmar – on Friday condemned the proposed new law which would require would-be religious converts to submit detailed paperwork to new registration boards in every township in the country.

“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,” said Heiner Bielefeldt, UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion. “I am very disturbed by the attempt to regulate religious conversion.”

President Thein Sein set up a 12-member parliamentary commission in March charged with gathering public feedback on the draft conversion law - one of four controversial new religious bills being considered - amid widespread anti-Muslim sentiment among the majority Buddhist population following two years of religious rioting.

The state-run Mirror newspaper published a draft of the proposed law on May 27 and called for feedback from the country’s citizens by last Friday. The decision to consult Myanmar’s public was the only positive noted by the three UN experts.

Thein Sein and Lower House Speaker Shwe Mann, who is tipped to be the government’s presidential candidate in elections scheduled for November next year, have both endorsed the draft which would also require those applying to convert to face questions about their faith.

Rita Izsak, the UN’s special rapporteur on minority, said on Friday: “I urge Myanmar to strengthen its protection in line with international standards not to create obstacles to the enjoyment of religious identity, minority rights, and the rights of every individual to freely choose or to change their faith.”

Hardline Buddhist monks have led vocal support for legislation barring religious conversion and inter-marrying with Muslims, while also pressuring the government and international organizations to suspend aid to hundreds of thousands of minority Muslim Rohingyas in western Rakhine state. Reports have described the deteriorating humanitarian situation as apartheid-like, with Rohingyas segregated from the rest of the population.

Yanghee Lee, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, warned the new religious bill represented “worrying backtracking” on the country’s democratic progress following widespread reforms and elections in 2010 and 2012.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, the government’s main challenger ahead of a general election due in November next year, has so far declined to give its opinion on the proposed bill.

“There has been no official discussion on the draft law on religion so I can’t say what the NLD position is on this,” said Nyan Win, an NLD lawyer and spokesman.

Personally, he viewed the law as “unnecessary” for Myanmar but declined to say what party leader and lawmaker Suu Kyi’s position was, ahead of a parliamentary vote on the bill expected by the end of the year.

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