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.