We the people of Myanmar

I thought it would be interesting to look at a constitution that has not generally been respected by its own government. Myanmar (formerly Burma) is, many people would agree, one such example.

The first indirect mention of religious liberty in Myanmar’s constitution is found in one of the “basic principles”:

The Union’s consistent objectives are … enhancing the eternal principles of Justice, Liberty and Equality in the Union

Then, in Section 34, we have:

Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practise religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.

I think it is interesting that practice of religion is subject to “morality”. It seems the government could easily use an accusation of immorality to clamp down on any religious practice they happened to disagree with. Unsurprisingly, “morality” is not defined.

Later in the constitution, a rather odd caveat is given to Section 34:

The freedom of religious right given in Section 34 shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice.

I’m afraid I can’t make sense of this: is it really saying that no economic, financial, or political activity can be associated with religious practice? This would exclude pastors from receiving salaries. It would exclude churches from being built. It would effectively limit the practice of religion to people’s homes.

Religion features again in the list of disqualifications for holding government office. The following two disqualifications hold, as far as I can tell, for the legislative houses (the Pyithu Hluttaw):

The following persons shall not be entitled to be elected as the Pyithu Hluttaw representatives :

(h) person himself or is of a member of an organization who abets the act of inciting, giving speech, conversing or issuing declaration to vote or not to vote based on religion for political purpose;

(i) member of a religious order;

This appears to set the scene for church-state separation.

Then, in a section on citizens’ rights and duties, we have:

The Union shall not discriminate any citizen of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex and wealth

This sentiment is expressed in greater detail a little later on (emphasis mine):

Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality:

(a) to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions;

(b) to assemble peacefully without arms and holding procession;

(c) to form associations and organizations;

(d) to develop their language, literature, culture they cherish, religion they profess, and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.

Next, the constitution makes it clear that it is not entirely non-discriminatory when it comes to religion. Only certain religions are recognized, and protection of these religions is not guaranteed (emphasis mine):

361. The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.

362. The Union also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.

363. The Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes to its utmost.

The next Section is an anti-defamation statement:

The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.

This is unnecessarily restrictive, much like the UN laws. For instance, it’s almost impossible to say anything critical of Islam without at least one Muslim calling for your head.

Oddly, members of religious orders are not permitted to vote (Section 392). (Other people who are not eligible to vote include “persons disqualified by election law” – a deliberate opening for election abuse if ever there was one!)

That wraps it up for Myanmar. Hopefully it’s on its way to a more fully democratic society. Things are looking up, but one can never be sure.

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