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Myanmar approves controversial religion bills

The bills regulating religious conversion and polygamy were approved by parliament on Thursday, according to a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition, who said his party had voted against the proposed legislation over fears that it was detrimental to human rights.

YANGON: Myanmar's parliament passed two controversial bills proposed by hardline Buddhist nationalists, MPs said on Thursday (Aug 20), completing a package of legislation that activists fear will curb religious freedoms as anti-Muslim tensions fester.

The bills regulating religious conversion and polygamy were approved by parliament on Thursday, according to a spokesman for Aung San Suu Kyi's opposition, who said his party had voted against the proposed legislation over fears that it was detrimental to human rights.

"The bills were approved by parliament. We are just minority party, so things do not always happen like we suggest," National League for Democracy MP Win Myint told AFP.

Full details of their content have yet to be released but the legislation was proposed by radical monks who have risen to prominence in recent years, claiming that the majority Buddhist religion is under threat.

Their influence has grown in tandem with simmering anti-Muslim sentiment that has occasionally spilled into waves of deadly bloodshed.

While there were scant details on the bills, the polygamy law reportedly includes a provision to criminalise extra-marital affairs, while the conversion law will apparently make it harder for people to change religion.

Two other bills that campaigners say are an affront to women's rights and religious freedoms, curbing inter-faith marriage and family size, have also been approved in recent months.

They come as Myanmar prepares for crucial Nov 8 elections that are seen as a key test of its democratic transition after decades of military rule.

David Mathieson of watchdog Human Rights Watch said the legislation "champions an ultra-nationalist agenda" and could fuel religious instability. "This could be used in the lead up and after the election to crack down on religious minorities," he said.

Nationalist monk Wirathu welcomed parliament's decision on Thursday. "All citizens are safe if we have these laws. They are very important for peace and national security," he told AFP.

The monk has earned international notoriety for his firebrand speeches, including calling the UN rights envoy Yanghee Lee a "whore" earlier this year over her advocacy for the rights of Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority.

The Buddhist Women's Special Marriage bill, which was approved by parliament in July, is the most controversial of the bills and has not yet passed into law.

A draft published in December laid out a web of rules governing marriage between Buddhist women and men of other faiths. It included a rule that the couple must apply to local authorities for permission to marry. Failure to comply was punishable by a two-year jail term.

Population control legislation, allowing regional governments to introduce regulations to lower birth rates became law after receiving presidential approval in May.

The European Union last month warned that taken together the legislation could "undermine the transition towards national reconciliation and an open democratic society".