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ICC Note: The move toward more restrictive laws governing religion in Myanmar is ramping up, brought about by the influence of Buddhist nationalists who equate being Burmese with being Buddhist.

By Mark A. Kellner

08/25/2015 Myanmar (Deseret News)

Laws restricting religious conversion and other practices are drawing fire from religious freedom experts, who say the measures hamper societal harmony.

On Friday, Burma’s joint parliament approved a religious conversion bill, which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said blocks individual choices.

“Under the religious conversion bill, individuals choosing to adopt another faith confront special bureaucratic hurdles — including requiring applicants to provide extensive and intrusive personal information, to receive ‘approval,’ thereby creating a system that effectively would discourage and reject conversions,” the independent federal commission said in a statement.

USCIRF chairman Robert P. George added, “This measure is discriminatory, period. It is gravely wrong for the government to presume to dictate whether an individual can change their religion or belief. We call on (Burmese) President Thein Sein immediately to reject this ill-conceived measure.”

Human Rights Watch, a global non-governmental organization, decried both the religious conversion bill and an anti-polygamy statute critics say is designed to hamper Burma’s Muslim minority.

“By passing these two draft laws, Parliament has ignored basic human rights and risks inflaming Burma’s tense intercommunal relations, threatening an already fragile transition ahead of landmark elections,” Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director, said.

Thailand’s Chiang Rai Times newspaper said the Burmese bills were “proposed by radical monks who have risen to prominence in recent years, claiming that the majority Buddhist religion is under threat.”

Tensions between Burma’s Buddhist majority and minority religions have been simmering for decades. A Christian sect, the Karens, noted the 65th anniversary of the martyrdom of key leaders, Burma News International reported this month. Earlier this year, the Deseret News reported on Rohingya Muslims, another minority in Burma, who fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere, despite uncertain prospects as refugees.

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