US rights rep cautions MPs over religion bills

Top United States human rights official Tom Malinowski has warned that the divisive use of religion in upcoming elections would be like “playing with fire”. Speaking on January 16 at the end of a six-day visit, he said a proposed package of religious laws put forward by Buddhist nationalists could also inflame tensions between religious groups.

He urged MPs to reject the laws, which would place restrictions on interfaith marriage and religious conversion.

“We expressed a concern that the use of religion, in particular to divide people whether it is done for political or any other purposes, is incredibly dangerous, particularly in an election year,” Mr Malinowski said.

“We expressed a concern that this is really playing with fire and exposes the country to dangers that it is not prepared to handle.”

The US human rights official’s trip coincided with the 10-day visit of UN special rapporteur on human rights Yanghee Lee, who also expressed concern over the four bills.

The bills, which are likely to be discussed during the parliament session that begins on January 19, have been widely criticised by local and international rights groups, who say they fail to meet international human rights norms.

On the issue of Rakhine State, Mr Malinowski said he asked the government to establish a “non-discriminatory” pathway to allow minority people in Rakhine State to obtain citizenship.

“The question we suggested in assessing citizenship should not be, ‘What is your race?’ It should not be, ‘What is your colour?’ [or] ‘What is your religion?’ It should be, “What are you prepared to do to help build this country?” he said.

He also called for humanitarian groups to be granted to those affected by conflict in Kachin State and northern Shan State as soon as possible.

“Whoever you blame for this conflict, whatever your interpretation for why this is happening, IDPs should not be punished.”

The delegation led by Mr Malinowski visited Kachin State and met with civil societies in Yangon before taking part in the “US-Myanmar Human Rights Dialogue” in Nay Pyi Taw on January 14 and 15.

The two sides discussed a full range of human rights issues and democratic reforms, he said, including political prisoners, media freedom, land rights, protecting civilians in conflict areas, legal and constitutional reforms, combating discrimination and military reforms.

He described the dialogue as “extremely constructive and productive” but acknowledged concerns about the reform process and human rights-related issues.

“There is a great deal of scepticism in some quarters about whether the reform process is continuing, and fears about tensions and other problems that might arise in a year in which the election will be first and foremost in people’s minds,” he said.