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Myanmar Passes Extreme Religion Bills Targeting Marginalized Muslim Population

CREDIT: AP/Gemunu Amarasinghe

Myanmar's nationalist Buddhist monks shout slogans during a protest rally in Yangon, Myanmar, Wednesday, May 27, 2015. About 300 protesters, led by radical Buddhist monks, rallied claiming boat people washing onto Southeast Asian shores were not Rohingya Muslims, a religious minority the government and many others in the predominantly Buddhist nation say “do not exist.”

Myanmar’s parliament passed two bills on Thursday that are widely believed to offer further legal cover to the country’s harsh policies toward its Rohingya Muslim population. Proposed by hardline Buddhist nationalists who claim that their traditions are threatened by the country’s Muslims, the bills regulate religious conversion and polygamy.

While details about the bills have not yet been released, advocates believe the measures targeting the country’s Rohingya, who are denied citizenship despite the fact that many of them have lived in Myanmar for generations.

“These discriminatory draft laws risk fanning the flames of anti-Muslim sentiment,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress in an email.

The bills are particularly vexing ahead elections which are slated for early November.

“Parliament has not only shown disregard for basic human rights norms, but turned up the heat on Burma’s tense intercommunal relations and potentially put an already fragile transition at risk, with landmark elections right around the corner,” Robertson added.

The election is expected to be the freest and fairest seen in Myanmar for decades. The country has been transitioning from military rule towards democracy since 2011.

Aung San Suu Kyi, an opposition leader and Nobel Laureate who lived under house arrest for 15 years, is expected to win the upcoming elections.

While she is widely seen as an advocate for democracy in the country, she has remained largely silent on the plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. While many believe she has not addressed the issue for fear of alienating voters ahead of the election, others, including the Dalai Lama, have urged her to take a decisive stance on the matter.

While Myanmar has opened up to foreign businesses and visitors and allowed for increased press freedoms in recent years, it has continued to persecute the ethnic Rohingya through a series of discriminatory laws. Myanmar has limited the number of children the Rohingya can have to two and restricted the frequency of their pregnancies to one every three years. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed in religion-fueled violence, and 140,000 have abandoned their homes to live in “apartheid-like” conditions. Over the course of the last year, tens of thousands of them have fled Myanmar on dangerous, often over-crowded boats.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has deemed the treatment of the Rohingya to constitute early warning signs of genocide.

“We’ve seen a deterioration in the living conditions of the Rohingya [after 2012],” Naomi Kikoler of the Holocaust Memorial Museum told ThinkProgress in May. “What is so particularly concerning right now is the very public and overt discriminatory practices of the government, but also the very virulent hate speech that’s being espoused by religious leaders.”

Authorities in Myanmar set “Rakhine State Action Plan” into motion last year, and as such have given Rohingya people a choice between accepting second-class status as “Bengali” residents of Myanmar, or be forced into government-built camps. 

“It’s a perfectly oiled plan,” one unnamed Rohingya activist told France 24. They want to get rid of the entire Rohingya population. This is just like Hitler and the Nazis: they used the concentration camps to exterminate the Jews of Europe. Here, the first step is to force us to live in these camps in Arakan, and then it’ll be death.”