A set of restrictive laws on race and religion finalized this week in Myanmar could exacerbate tensions and drive a wedge between the country’s diverse ethnic and religious groups, Christian leaders warn. Christian groups raised their concerns after Myanmar’s president on Aug. 31 signed into law the last of four controversial bills pushed by hardline Buddhist monks. The new monogamy law sets punishments for people who have more than one spouse or who are living with another person while still married. It carries a maximum penalty of up to seven years in prison. Rights groups believe the new law — as well as three other laws on population control, religious conversion and interfaith marriage — is a thinly veiled attempt to target religious minorities, especially Muslims, in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. Dr. Saw Hlaing Bwar, professor at the Myanmar Institute of Theology’s Judson Research Center in Yangon, said the laws could be used to institutionalize discrimination against minorities. "The law must protect the people and promote equality and rights," he said. "But attempting to enact these laws could legalize … discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities." Saw Hlaing Bwar worried the laws could also trigger further conflict in a country already rife with ethnic tension, particularly in communities where Muslims and Buddhists coexist. "What I’m more concerned with is that the conflict may happen among religions if people from minority groups respond to the incitement and propaganda with anger," he said. Hardliners
The laws were championed by hardline Buddhist monks from a group known as Ma Ba Tha, or the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion. Fr. Maurice Nyunt Wai, executive secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, said the race and religion laws may not be overtly targeting Christians directly, but they could have a lasting impact on race relations in general. "Over the long term, [the laws] could tarnish the image of Buddhism, which is peaceful, compassionate and calm," he said. "And this can destroy the harmonious society among religions in Myanmar and the distance between the majority Buddhists and other minorities will grow wider." Saw Shwe Lin, general secretary of the Myanmar Council of Churches, said Christian leaders do not believe the race and religion laws specifically target Christians at this stage. However, church leaders will meet to discuss their possible impacts. In addition to the monogamy bill, the race and religion laws include legislation on population control, religious conversion and interfaith marriage.
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Myanmar President Thein Sein signed the population control bill into law in May. That legislation could let authorities impose mandatory "birth spacing" — the interval between a woman’s pregnancies — in specific populations. The president signed the laws restricting religious conversion and interfaith marriage on Aug. 26, according to Zaw Htay, director-general of the president’s office. The law on interfaith marriages would require Buddhist women who want to marry non-Buddhist men to register their marriages in advance, allowing members of their community to object to a planned union. In predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, Christians represent about 5 percent of the population while Muslims comprise about 3.5 percent.