Myanmar, also known as Burma, has taken steps in recent years toward freedom and democracy from the iron-fisted military regime that ruled until 2011. But many groups were outraged by a recently proposed religious conversion bill they say is a step backwards.
The parliament of Myanmar released a draft bill in May that would require anyone who wanted to change faiths to apply for government permission.
Sooyoung Kim, International Christian Concern’s regional manager for Southeast Asia, said the bill would require multiple steps of government approval to convert, making it sound “practically impossible.”
The bill called for penalties for proselytizing as well as preventing someone from converting, according to Agence France Presse. It also would establish a minimum age for conversion, according to Australia Network News. The government proposed another bill that would make interfaith marriage or converting to marry more difficult.
Both proposals were widely condemned in Burma and internationally. Eight-one groups came together to call for the bill to be discarded entirely, Myanmar.com reported. Rachel Fleming of The Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), said the proposal could “seriously undermine the peace process,” and increase the number of Chin missionaries who become prisoners of conscience, according to Myanmar.com.
Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for Voice of the Martyrs, called the religious conversion bill “a huge step backwards away from anything you would call freedom or democracy.”
The U.S. government agreed. “This draft law, and the three others that may follow, risk stoking continuing violence and discrimination against Muslims and other religious minorities, including Christians,” said Robert George, chairman of the United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF).
Myanmar has several ethnic groups, including the Burman majority, and multiple minorities including Karen, Shan, Rohinga and Chin. Buddhism is the majority religion, but Muslims and Christians make up significant minorities.
A movement of anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalists called the “969” support the legislation because they “want to protect the Buddhist nationalist identity,” Kim said.
Although experts speculated the proposal was meant to target Muslims, everyone would be impacted, they said.
“The attention is on the Muslim-Buddhist relationship because there has been violence in recent years,” Nettleton said. “So everyone in Burma is paying attention to that. But when you start talking about people having to go before a committee to get approval for changing their personal faith, that’s going to impact everybody. … This is going to have a dampening effect on ministry efforts by Christians because it essentially criminalizes evangelism.”
The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh passed similar legislation almost a year ago. It requires converts to give the government at least a month’s notice before changing religions.
Since Myanmar went from a military dictatorship to a parliament in 2011, religious minorities have experienced some improvements. President U Thein Sein loosened restrictions on tribal minorities and allowed for celebrations of traditional festivals. “That means we can hold Christian services without having to hide,” a Chin pastor said.
But persecution of Christians has not ceased. In 2014, Open Doors ranked Myanmar 23rd on its World Watch List of worst persecutors. Open Doors said it remains difficult to register churches and existing churches are monitored by the government.