WASHINGTON - The State Department has voiced serious concerns about proposals to criminalize interfaith marriage in Myanmar, while rights groups warned Thursday that passage of such discriminatory legislation could spark more violence against Muslims.
Nationalist Buddhist monks are pushing legislation to "protect and preserve race and religion" in the Southeast Asian nation, which has seen bouts of violence against minority Muslims in the past two years that have killed more than 200 people and displaced tens of thousands.
President Thein Sein has directed parliament to draft four pieces of legislation that would also restrict religious conversion, ban polygamy and enact population control measures — widely viewed as steps directed against Muslims.
The proposed legislation raises questions about the direction of Myanmar's democratic reforms as it shifts from decades of military rule.
The Obama administration has been a staunch supporter of Thein Sein, helping his government to escape pariah status. But nationalist sentiments appear on the rise in the country also known as Burma ahead of pivotal national elections in 2015.
"The United States opposes any measure that would criminalize interfaith marriages. Such a step would be inconsistent with the government's efforts to promote tolerance and respect for human rights," spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in written response to a question posed at a press briefing Wednesday.
Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Myanmar, Derek Mitchell, said he spoke to women activists who reported receiving death threats for opposing the marriage bill.
In a statement Thursday, a coalition of 80 civil society groups said the draft religious conversion law, published May 27 and currently open for public comment, would unlawfully restrict the right to choose a religion freely.
The bill "appears to legitimize the views of those promoting hate-speech and inciting violence against Muslims and other minorities and if adopted, will further institutionalize discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities," the coalition, including the British-based group Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said.
Robert George, chairman of the Commission on International Religious Freedom, said the conversion legislation 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"Such a law has no place in the 21st century, and we urge that it be withdrawn," he said in a statement.
Rep. Joseph Crowley, a leading voice in Congress on Myanmar policy, said it was most disappointing that Thein Sein's office was pushing the efforts to "institutionalize discrimination."
"On top of the fact that he still hasn't released all political prisoners, attacks are continuing against ethnic groups, and he has not supported constitutional reform. I'm seriously concerned about the overall situation," the Democratic lawmaker said.