Sometimes the two American agencies which are mandated to watch and promote religious freedom have arguments over how harshly to scold a country that offends. But some recent developments in Myanmar, reflecting the influence of hard-line Buddhist monks, have drawn a near-unanimous cry of disapproval in Washington DC. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), whose members are nominated by Congress as well as the administration, has said a proposed law on religious conversion should have "no place in the 21st century". After predicting that the law could stoke fresh violence against Muslims and Christians, it said the American government should "factor these negative developments into its evolving relationship" with Myanmar. Meanwhile the State Department said that by proposing to criminalise inter-faith marriage, the Burmese government risked contravening its own stated intention of promoting tolerance and human rights.
The conversion bill, which would require anyone wanting to change religion to seek permission from local authorities, is one of four bills which the government has drawn up under pressure from a group of zealous Buddhist monks called Mabatha. Under the mooted conversion law, anybody applying to convert "with the intention of insulting or destroying a religion" could be jailed for up to two years, and people who "compel" others to convert through "undue influence or pressure" could also go jail for a year. The other proposed laws concern marriage between people of different religions, birth rates and polygamy. All the measures are seen as an attack on non-Buddhist minorities, especially the country's 2.2m Muslims who came off worst in a series of outbreaks of inter-communal violence since 2012.
The law means that Myanmar joins the growing list of Asian countries where the right to change religion (entrenched in many human-rights documents) is hotly contested. In parts of Malaysia where an Islamist party exercises local power, leaving the Muslim faith is a criminal offence; this reflects an Islamic legal tradition which at its harshest mandates the death penalty for apostasy. In parts of India, Christians claim that their faith has suffered badly from anti-conversion laws designed to stop Hindus, especially those of a low caste, embracing Christianity.
Knox Thames, director of policy and research at USCIRF, said the Burmese conversion law was a significant step backwards at a time when Myanmar should be looking for ways to correct existing violations, by granting full civil rights to its religious minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims, who were denied citizenship, and Christians in Kachin state who had suffered abuse from the military. Because of those long-standing abuses, the USCIRF and the State Department list Myanmar as a "country of particular concern" in respect of religious liberty, which may be subject to American sanctions.
But why, some might ask, would the authorities in Myanmar pay any attention to American scoldings, when they are also being wooed by China which has little interest in promoting human rights? As an example of how American pressure can achieve constructive results, Mr Thames cites Vietnam, which was listed as a CPC (ie, a gross religious-freedom violator) in 2004 but also given certain benchmarks to bring the country out of the naughty corner. Improvements in religious freedom were informally tied to support for Vietnam's membership of the World Trade Organisation. In consultation with the American administration, the Vietnamese boosted legal protection for religious groups and stopped forcing people to renounce their faith. As a result, the State Department's CPC designation was removed in 2006— although the USCIRF, which applies somewhat more stringent criteria, still places Vietnam in that category.
In any case, Vietnam is a success story of sorts for American diplomatic pressure over religious liberty. But for that sort of pressure to work, America needs the will to apply it, and the regime in question has to care more about its standing in the West than it does about appeasing hard-line domestic lobbies.