Myanmar archbishop warns proposed laws would limit religious freedom
Catholic News Service
YANGON, Myanmar -- Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon said proposed laws on "the protection of race and religion" are unnecessary, and warned against the state interfering in an individual's right to choose their religion.
Archbishop Bo told the Asian church news portal ucanews.com that such laws risked dialing back religious freedom in Myanmar at a time when citizens are gaining freedoms in most other areas.
A nationalist movement led by Buddhist monks last year had lawyers draft a package of legislation to regulate interfaith marriage, religious conversion and population growth, backed by a petition with more than 1.3 million signatures. The government of the country's reformist president, Thein Sein, is drafting laws based on the proposal, which is targeting the Buddhist-majority country's Muslim minority.
At the heart of the movement is an apparent fear that Buddhist women are being forcibly converted to Islam, and that Muslims are growing in number and influence. Inter-communal violence has displaced tens of thousands of people in Rakhine state, where the ethnic Rohingya Muslim minority lives, and elsewhere since mid-2012. The vast majority of those displaced are Muslims.
The most controversial law being proposed would require a Buddhist woman to have her marriage sanctioned by local authorities, her parents and in-laws before marrying a non-Buddhist. Her husband also would be required to convert to Buddhism.
Speaking at his Yangon residence, adjacent to St. Mary Cathedral, Archbishop Bo said such matters should not be legally restricted.
"Suppose if somebody wants to marry a Muslim, he would have to become a Muslim according to the (religious) laws. If he marries a Catholic girl, he must become a Catholic. But it's different. This is the law of the religion. But they want to enforce it in the state law," he said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch last month called for Thein Sein and lower house Speaker Thura Shwe Mann to reject the proposal, saying it contained measures "seriously jeopardizing women's autonomous decision making and their freedom to start a family of their choice."
"It is shocking that Burma is considering enshrining blatant discrimination at the heart of Burmese family law," Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch's Asia director, said in a statement. "This law would strip away from women their right to freely decide whom to marry, and would mark a major reversal for religious freedom and women's rights in Burma."
The attorney general's office and government ministries are expected to develop final drafts of the package of laws in May.
Also proposed is a measure to legally regulate conversion from Buddhism to another religion.
"Conversion is an individual freedom," Archbishop Bo said. "They cannot force anybody to become one religion or the other. Even the pope said we have to respect even the atheist who doesn't profess any religion. I think we have to respect the conscience of each one. We cannot force them to join one religion or the other; not the parents, not the state, not the monks."
The proposed laws also would attempt to restrict population growth. The Myanmar government has already enacted policies aimed at limiting Rohingya families to two children.
"All these areas I don't think anyone can impose on anyone," said Archbishop Bo, adding that such laws could jeopardize new freedoms, mainly the newfound ability of Myanmar citizens, with some restrictions, to hold public demonstrations.
"If we restrict these, it's not democracy," he said.