U.S. agency urges Myanmar to scrap proposed religion laws

Washington - Draft laws in Myanmar aimed at protecting the country's majority Buddhist identity by regulating religious conversions and marriages between people of different faiths have "no place in the 21st century" and should be withdrawn, a U.S. government agency said on Wednesday.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said the laws risked stoking violence against Muslims and other religious minorities, including Christians. If the laws are passed, it said, Washington "should factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship with Burma (Myanmar).”

The U.S. State Department said it had serious concerns about the pending legislation and had expressed them to the government of Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki told a regular news briefing that any measure that would criminalize interfaith marriages "would be inconsistent with the government’s efforts to promote tolerance and respect for human rights."

The chairman of the commission, Robert George, called the proposed law against religious conversions "irreparably flawed" and said it would contravene Myanmar's international commitments to protect freedom of religion or belief.

"Such a law has no place in the 21st century, and we urge that it be withdrawn,” he said.

The law as published in draft form last month would require those seeking to change their religion to obtain permission from panels of government officials.

The government has yet to publish drafts of other three bills, which deal with population control measures, a ban on polygamy and curbs on interfaith marriage.

George said the commission recently recommended that Washington continue to designate Myanmar a "country of particular concern" for severe religious freedom violations.

Late last month, Myanmar began a parliamentary session that will debate the proposed legislation. The government has said it will accept comments on the religious conversion law until June 20. (Full Story)

Rising sectarian tension in Myanmar has exploded into violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims.

At least 237 people have been killed and more than 140,000 displaced by the violence since June 2012. The vast majority of victims have been Muslims, who make up about 5 percent of Myanmar's population of 60 million.

Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has adopted sweeping political and economic reforms since taking over from a military junta in March 2011 and has been encouraged in this by the United States, which is competing for influence in Asia with an increasingly assertive China.

However, the religious tension in Myanmar, which has grown alongside a movement led by nationalist Buddhist monks known by the numerals "969," has been viewed in Washington with growing concern.

A bipartisan group of prominent U.S. senators has introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that would limit military cooperation with Myanmar if rights abuses are not addressed.

Recommendations of the bipartisan commission are non-binding. U.S. law allows for the imposition of sanctions on countries the commission terms "of particular concern," but they are not automatically imposed.