Controversial laws under debate
After a recess of almost two months both houses of parliament – the Pyithu Hluttaw and Amyotha Hluttaw – reconvened on January 19th for their 12th session since the November 2010 general elections.
During the 11th session, that ended on November 28, the proportional representation debate attracted most of the limelight. It was eventually decided not to adopt the PR system and retain first-past-the-post for the general election due late this year.
The current session will also attract attention, because parliament has some controversial issues on its plate. What, for example, will be the fate of the constitutional referendum planned for May to allow the people to express an opinion on charter reform?
But possibly the biggest issue before parliament is a set of controversial bills that were drafted in 2013 by a group of nationalist monks, the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, better known by its Myanmar acronym as Ma Ba Tha.
The four “protection of race and religion laws” are meant to protect the Buddhist religion and the rights of Buddhist women married to non-Buddhist men. The laws were sent to parliament by President U Thein Sein late last November and will be hotly debated in the coming month.
The laws have been revised since first being sent to parliament but all four still contain provisions that are controversial. Buddhist women aged under 20 need their parents' consent to marry non-Buddhist men, for example. Clauses regarding the custody of children and property ownership in the event of a divorce favour the Buddhist partner. One of the proposed laws would force people wanting to convert to appear before a registration board comprising officials and elders, who would determine if the person wishing to convert is “genuine” in his or her religious beliefs.
Human rights groups have warned that the laws risk further inflaming tensions between Buddhists and those of other faiths, many of whom are members of ethnic minority groups. The Women's League of Burma believes the proposed laws would infringe on women's rights.
International spectators agree. US Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski and UN special human rights envoy Yanghee Lee declared during their recent visits that the protection of race and religion laws are a threat to stability in Myanmar.
The situation was “playing with fire”, warned Mr Malinowski, who said an assessment of the laws had found they were in breach of international human rights standards. The European Union recently released a statement supporting this view.
Human Rights Watch said the draft laws are a breach of “every tenet of reli- gious freedom” and noted that they required any Myanmar planning to change religion to “seek a series of permissions from local representatives of government departments, including the ministries of Religion, Education, Immigration and Population, and Women's Affairs, and wait 90 days for permission to be granted.”
Heiner Bielefeldt, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, said that: “State interferences into the right to change one's religion or belief are per se illegitimate and incompatible with international human rights standards.”
But will these comments yield any result? Ever since the release from prison of the outspoken monk U Wirathu, the Myanmar Government has been spoon-feeding the nationalist movement. As the international community has lost much of its leverage in recent years it is hard to see why the government would sweep its domestic political agenda aside in this election year.
Maybe the Buddhist-dominated parliament will cause a surprise by rejecting the laws in favour of the international conventions they breach and to which Myanmar is a party. Maybe Nobel Peace Prize laureate and opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi will finally muster the courage to stand up for values that she proclaimed in the past to uphold.
But don't bet on it.