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Myanmar lawmakers to mull law curbing religious conversions

Proposed legislation comes alongside other bills that would bar Buddhist women from marrying outside faith

Myanmar began a parliamentary session Wednesday that will see lawmakers debate restrictions to religious conversions, part of a series of bills that could also bar interfaith marriages under the guise of protecting the country’s Buddhist identity.

The first of the proposed measures would require anyone seeking to change their religion to get permission from a panel of government officials, according to a draft published by a state-run newspaper.

Other bills are expected to deal with population control measures and a curb on interfaith marriage. The measures have been taken by some as further proof of persecution of the country’s Muslim minority.

They come amid rising sectarian unrest in Myanmar, which is commonly referred to as Burma. In recent months, tension has escalated into violence directed largely toward the Rohingya community – the country’s Muslim minority – by the Buddhist majority.

Dhammapiya, a senior monk who helped write the proposed laws, said they were meant to "protect" Buddhist women from being forced to covert to Islam when they married Muslim men.

"Many incidents happen, so this marriage law is to help the women do something," he said in an interview with Reuters.

But May Sabe Phyu, a Burmese women's rights activist, rejected the suggestion.

"Religion is an individual decision," she said. "For what purpose is this conversion of religion law really needed?"

Based on hatred

The activists said the real reason for the laws was to further marginalize Muslims in the country. "It's based on extreme hatred," May Sabe Phyu added. "It's focused on a particular religion."

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has adopted sweeping political and economic reforms since taking over from a military junta in March 2011.

But it has struggled to contain religious tension. Since June 2012, at least 237 people have been killed in ethnic unrest, according to international aid groups. The vast majority of victims were Muslims who make up only about 5 percent of Myanmar's population of 60 million.

According the Human Rights Watch (HRW), the legislative push came about after President Thein Sein sent a letter to Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament, suggesting that the body draft the four laws to "preserve race and religion."

HRW said it saw a draft of the interfaith marriage law, which would restrict Buddhist women to marrying fellow Buddhists and require people of other faiths to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist.

But no women's groups or religious bodies except for Buddhists were consulted in drafting the laws, said May Sabe Phyu, whose parents are Buddhist and Christian.

"Whether you marry a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Christian man, many women are forced to suffer violence in their home," she said. "Instead of having these laws, why not have a law to protect women against violence?"

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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