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More clamps on religious freedom in Asia

HONG KONG (UCAN): The parliament in Naypyidaw, the Union of Myanmar, passed controversial legislation championed by hardline Buddhist nationalists on August 21, raising fears authorities will have new tools to use against already marginalised minority groups.

Members of the parliament said that two proposed bills had been passed; one regulating religious conversions and the other an anti-polygamy bill.

Je Yaw Wu, a representative in the Upper House, confirmed that the parliament had passed the legislation.

“The religious conversion bill is not necessary to enact the law in Myanmar, as it is detrimental to the right of each citizen,” Je Yaw Wu, a Catholic from the Kachin state, commented.

Meanwhile, Christian groups are warning that Vietnam is moving closer to passing a restrictive law on religion.

The country’s most powerful political organ, the Standing Committee of the National Assembly, discussed the bill on August 14. 

Christian Solidarity Worldwide said that there are few signs that major amendments would be made before passing next year.

“We know from our research that many religious leaders and community representatives have serious concerns about the draft, which could, in its current form, lead to further interference in religious life in Vietnam,” Andy Dipper, the head operating officer, said.

Officials have consulted with religious groups on the law—currently in its fourth draft—although there have been few subsequent changes to its wording.

Critics of the draft warn it would require all group religious activity to be registered with the authorities or face being outlawed, a system similar to China.

Vietnam has no current law managing faith groups, but instead, relies on a religious ordinance passed in 2004, followed by decrees in 2005 and 2013.

Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, the non-resident representative from the Vatican to Vietnam, said that the draft law, if passed, would be considered a step backward.

“The pontifical representation is monitoring the ongoing legislation about religion and belief,” Archbishop Girelli commented. “The local Church hopes to be more involved in the consultation in view of the new law being passed.”

Human rights groups in Myanmar say that the government has not released full details on the anti-conversion legislation.

However, they believe that the anti-conversion bill will make it more difficult for people to change religions.

It is feared that another proposal being debated concurrently, the anti-polygamy bill, will attempt to criminalise extra-marital affairs.

The proposed legislation forms a package of four bills that rights advocates say are thinly veiled attempts to curb the freedom of minority religions—particularly Muslims.

These include restrictive laws on interfaith marriage and population control, which the parliament has already passed.

In May, the Vietnamese bishops sent a strongly worded letter to Hanoi saying that the draft shows the communist regime “completely imposes its power on religious organisations and creates loopholes for executive bodies to carry out abuse of power.”

Observers warn that the law represents the first major setback for religious freedom since Vietnam re-established its ties with the Vatican, leading to Archbishop Girelli’s appointment in 2011.


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