It’s not uncommon particularly in countries without a stable democracy, that a law that’s supposed to protect minorities appears to achieve the opposite. One of the newest laws in Myanmar safely comes into that category. It’s supposed to protect religious freedom, but in line with the military government’s earlier laws it actually achieves almost completely the opposite effect. What the laws purports is the establishment of boards at a local level which will analyse any individual’s proposal to change their religion. In fact you need a permit from these boards in order to make any meaningful change to your religion.
In many countries you might think – ‘big deal’ , I’ll just change without the boards. However in this country your religion is very important and is displayed on most personal information – identity documents and such. In fact your religion can play a very important role in some circumstances concerning marriages, employment and even issues involving inheritance. All will look at your religious standing especially with issues traditionally dealt with by religious courts.
Here’s how these boards will be compromised – (taken from the AHRC press release)
Under section 3 of the draft law, the inquisitorial boards will consist, at the township level, of the head of religious affairs (chairperson), the head of the national registration department (deputy chairperson), the deputy administrator of the township and a person of his choice, the chairperson of the women’s affairs federation, and a member of the education department. Under section 7(a) at least four of these persons form a quorum with which to interrogate someone seeking to convert her or his religion. Under section 7(b), the interrogation, to take place within 90 days of an application, will inquire about the extent to which the person wanting to convert has grasped the “essence” of the religion to which she or he wishes to convert; its cultural practices relating to marriage, divorce and the separation of property, and inheritance and child custody. Following this inquisition, the board will either issue or deny a permit with which to convert.
So if you want to change your religion and you’re in Burma, then you’d have to wade through a series of questioning and inquisitions by various government officials. If you live in a Western democratic nation, could you imagine going to the town hall to ask permission from a group of council officials to ask their permission to change your faith!!
Even if implemented in a fair, unbiased and democratic manner, it would of course be completely unacceptable and a serious violation of human rights (to worship freely whatever deity they wish). But in reality this will be used in a very different manner, it will be used to prevent Buddhists converting to any other religion. It’s probably mainly targeted at stopping people switching to Islam more than anything.
It’s almost certain that these boards will be anything like fair, and most Burma watchers are predicting interrogation and intimidation to be built into the process. In truth it will probably be a rubber stamp to anyone wanting to convert from any religion to Buddhism and a way to block anyone wanting to switch the other way. It’s almost certain that this law will be abused greatly and will further erode human rights in Burma. The country is straying away from it’s path which once looked set for a free and democratic society after years of military dictatorship.
Freedoms are still not in place, voting, religion and even the ability to use the internet without resorting to using a fake ip address. Restrictions are still in place but perhaps not enforced quite as aggressively as previously. The updating of the telecommunications and internet infrastructure helps greatly as people can access outside media through things like this page which shows how to access a free trial of BBC iplayer from abroad usiing a VPN.