Last Thursday, Myanmar’s parliament approved the remaining two of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago prefers to call them the “Race and Religion Discrimination bills.” Their passage—which would allow local governments to impose a host of repressive measures—comes at a time of ongoing racial and religious discrimination and violence, part of a concerning trend in systematic Rohingya persecution. It is only more alarming as it coincides with the widespread disenfranchisement of previously registered Rohingya voters, including former parliamentarian U Shwe Maung.
These bills are inconsistent with international norms and standards and represent a clear violation of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Myanmar is a party to both conventions. The bills are likely to not only legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment but also provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of Rohingya.
The package of laws has been a long time coming. They were first proposed following the establishment of the nationalist Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, which presented them as a draft to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. In December 2014, the laws were tabled for parliamentary debate beginning in January. Civil society and the international human rights community campaigned against their adoption and encouraged the Government of Myanmar to observe its human rights obligations rather than succumbing to nationalist hysteria.
Despite such concerns, in May the Population Control Healthcare Bill was the first to be approved. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee cautioned that the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills “risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar.”
The bill grants regional officials the ability to establish 36-month birth spacing for target groups. The bill lacks human rights safeguards and raises serious concerns for abuse against Rohingya Muslims, who have already been subjected to decades of similarly abusive local orders.
Muslim couples that wish to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take years to secure and require bribes. The Two Child Policy requires them to sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children, under threat of fine or imprisonment. The policy has led to amateur abortions that threaten women’s lives, influenced the number of women refugees, and led to the birth of blacklisted children who may never be registered, explains Engy Abdelkader, an expert on freedom of religion with the OSCE. The CRC requires birth registration and establishes the right to a nationality and identity, noting that the state is obligated to ensure these rights “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”
The desire to control Muslim populations in Myanmar comes from the widespread belief in the Buddhist-majority country that Muslim communities have exceedingly high birthrates and are planning a population takeover. However, as Abdelkader points out, based on official government data, researchers at Harvard University have revealed that Rohingya actually have one of the country’s lowest population growth rates. Unconvinced by such data, Ma Ba Tha founder and ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu continues to infuse his Buddhist millenarian sermons with narratives of Muslim population growth, and the forced conversion or widespread rape of Buddhist women.
In July, parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, which requires Buddhist women and men from other religions who wish to marry to register their intention publicly. They may only get married if there are no objections. It will apply retroactively to existing unions who must register as interfaith marriages. This violates the universally recognized rights to marriage and privacy, as well as equal protection of the law by applying only to Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. It is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.
The justification for protecting Buddhist women in marriage appears to arise from a gender discriminatory narrative that equates women with purity and assigns a patriarchal society with the task of protecting a Buddhist women’s purity at the expense of her agency.
In August, parliament approved the final two bills, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill. The conversion bill requires anyone who chooses to change their religion to apply with a district level “Registration Board,” submit to an interview and a 90-day waiting period. Such restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freely have or adopt religion. It is an assault on privacy, also found in the monogamy bill, which targets religious minorities who are often seen as sexual deviants.
According to Human Rights Watch, at least the most recent bills are still awaiting final signature by President Thein Sein. As the November election approaches he will likely come under increasing pressure, along with the rest of his USDP Party, from Ma Ba Tha to enact them into law.
Throughout the drafting period and especially once the package of bills was introduced to parliament, Ma Ba Tha was active in campaigning for their enactment. In October, U Wirathu organized thousands in Mandalay to demand the passage of the bills. May Sabai Phyu, a human rights defender and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, revealed that Ma Ba Tha challenged parliamentarians who did not approve the bills. Senior monks told their congregations not to vote for those who did not support the bills. Some critics were labeled “traitors” and at least four civil society leaders reported receiving death threats.
Article 364 of Myanmar’s Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes, and several sections of the Penal Code criminalize deliberate assaults on religious feelings and the incitement of hatred or violence against racial or religious groups. However, there has been no investigation into these activities.
One problem that remains seemingly unanswered, as pointed out by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, is whether and how the bills would apply to non-citizens. This is a particular concern for the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship and subjected to unofficial discriminatory local orders for decades.
When asked whether non-citizens living in the country would be burdened with the requirements under the religious conversion or the marriage bill, U Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, merely stated “that it is a very complicated thing, which the state must consider carefully.” The inability of the national human rights commission to conclusively dissuade concerns that the law would disproportionately target non-citizens raises serious concerns about implementation.
For Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights defender and founder of Women Peace Network Arakan, there is little uncertainty. For her, the central government’s intent with the adoption of the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills is precisely to legalize discrimination.
Michael Caster is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Previously he worked as a human rights advocate and civil society consultant based in East Asia.