Myanmar passes bills curbing religious conversion, criminalizing adultery – MPs

Shwe Mann, speaker of Myanmar's Lower House of Parliament. © Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar has reportedly passed two controversial bills which would regulate polygamy, criminalize adultery, and make it more difficult for a person to change their religion. Opponents say the legislation would be detrimental to human rights.

The bills, proposed by hardline Buddhist nationalists who claim the majority Buddhist religion is under threat, were passed by parliament on Thursday, MPs told AFP. It comes as the influence of hardline Buddhist nationalists continues to grow, while anti-Muslim sentiment rises.

Although the exact details of the proposed legislation have not been released, the polygamy law reportedly includes a provision to criminalize extra-marital affairs, while the conversion law would make it more difficult for people to change religion.

A spokesman for the National League for Democracy, MP Win Myint, expressed his party's discontent with parliament's decision.

"The bills were approved by parliament. We are just minority party, so things do not always happen like we suggest," he said.

Meanwhile, nationalist monk Wirathu welcomed the Thursday decision.

"All citizens are safe if we have these laws. They are very important for peace and national security," he said.

The bills are part of a package of legislation which opponents fear will negatively impact human rights in the country. Two other bills which curb inter-faith marriage and family size were also approved in recent months.

Passed in July, the Buddhist Women's Special Marriage bill is the most controversial of the proposed legislation. A draft published in December showed that the bill laid out a list of rules regarding marriage between Buddhist women and men of other religions. It would require the couple to apply to local authorities for permission to marry. Failure to do so would be punishable by two years in jail. The bill has not yet been passed into law.

Meanwhile, population control legislation became law after receiving presidential approval in May. The law allows regional governments to introduce regulations to lower birth rates.

David Mathieson of watchdog Human Rights Watch said the legislation package "champions an ultra-nationalist agenda" and could fuel religious instability.

"This could be used in the lead up and after the election to crack down on religious minorities," he said.

The European Union warned last month that the legislation could "undermine the transition towards national reconciliation and an open democratic society.”

The Thursday passage of the bills comes as Myanmar prepares for crucial November 8 elections which will serve as a test of its democratic transition after decades of military rule.