A Law to protect religious harmony is being considered by the new government following failed attempts to pass such a bill in the previous parliament, which instead enacted controversial legislation seen as undermining religious freedoms.
U Ko Ni, legal adviser to the National League for Democracy, said discussions were being held with interfaith groups to revive proposed legislation that had failed to get through parliament under U Thein Sein’s administration.
‘’There are two main purposes – one is to promote the aspect of living harmoniously among religions, and the second is to take effective action against those who try to disturb the status of harmony,” he said.
Religious Affairs and Culture Minister Thura U Aung Ko met members of an interfaith group in Mandalay on May 5 to discuss legislation that would ensure equal rights for all religions. He also met an interfaith group in Yangon on May 15. His ministry has not revealed details of the proposed law.
Discussions about the new law come as Buddhist nationalists have sought to stir up inter-religious tensions, protesting against Muslims identifying themselves as Rohingya, and using social media to spread hate speech.
State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has come under considerable international criticism for what is seen as her reluctance to tackle the issue of religious and civil rights for Muslims in Rakhine State.
Religious tensions are also rising in Kayin State where a prominent Buddhist monk has defied the authorities by building stupas in compounds of Christian and Muslim communities.
Myanmar’s 2008 constitution establishes the “right to freely profess and practise religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution”. However four laws “to protect race and religion” enacted by the previous military-backed government under pressure from powerful Buddhist nationalists were widely condemned by Myanmar civil rights groups and the international community for discriminating against non-Buddhists.
Clashes between Buddhist and Muslim communities in Meiktila in 2013 led to efforts by interfaith groups to draw up a draft law known as the “Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act”.
U Ko Ni said a draft was submitted to parliament in 2013 but it was never discussed. He said it was not on the current parliament’s agenda either.
“Now we are trying to send it to parliament again through interfaith groups after discussing with members of the groups,” he added.
“The government has the duty to act in the interest of all religions. They should not pay attention only to Buddhists but also to other religions, as the constitution says everyone has the right to religious freedom,” U Ko Ni said.
U Parmaukkha, a senior monk better known as Magwe Sayadaw, welcomed the concept of the proposed law but said it would not be easy to remove religious tensions through legislation.
The monk is a prominent member of the Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion, better known as Ma Ba Tha, which was the main sponsor of the laws to “protect race and religion”.
“We wait and see what this law contains. There is no reason to be against it, but the government needs to make sure that other religions follow existing laws. Moreover if the government wants harmonious living, it is very important not to make any changes to the 1982 citizenship law,” he added, referring to the law that has effectively stood as the barrier between many Rohingya and citizenship.
U Kyaw Soe Aung, secretary of the Democracy and Human Rights Party which includes many Muslims, said adoption of the law would contribute to preventing incitement of religious violence through social media, newspapers, and radio and television.
“But to live in harmony it is not enough to educate people. Leaders of the country, like the president and state counsellor, should participate in promoting interfaith campaigns by visiting churches and mosques. Also state-owned broadcast media should often air some of the customs and activities of different religions. Now when we turn on the television every morning, we always see programs related to Buddhist teaching,” U Kyaw Soe Aung said.
However Ko Win Ko Ko Latt, chair of the Myanmar National Network which is organising protests across the country against the use of the term “Rohingya”, said the new law was not necessary. Other laws already existed to stop insults against other faiths, he said.
“If the government uses laws to take action against those who promote their religion, then they hinder freedom of speech and expression,” Ko Win Ko Ko Latt said.