YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar began a parliamentary session on Wednesday that will see lawmakers debate the first of four proposed laws that aim to protect the country's majority Buddhist identity by regulating religious conversions and interfaith marriages.
The proposals come amidst rising sectarian tension in Myanmar, which has exploded in violent clashes between Buddhists and Muslims, killing at least 237 people and displacing more than 140,000 since June 2012.
The vast majority of victims were Muslims who make up only about 5 percent of Myanmar's population of 60 million.
A state-run newspaper on Tuesday published the draft of a law that would require anyone seeking to change their religion to get permission from panels of government officials in each township.
The government said it would accept comments on the draft until June 20. It has yet to publish drafts of the other three bills, dealing with population control measures, a ban on polygamy and curbs on interfaith marriage.
Dhammapiya, a senior monk who helped write the original proposal for the laws, said they were meant to encourage peace between different faiths and to "protect" Buddhist women from being forced to covert to Islam when they married Muslim men.
"Many incidents happen, so this marriage law is to help the women do something," he said in an interview in a monastery in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city.
May Sabe Phyu, a women's rights activist, rejected the suggestion that such laws would protect women, saying they would instead benefit from better access to education and employment.
"Religion is an individual decision," she said. "For what purpose is this conversion of religion law really needed?"
The laws were really intended to put pressure on Muslims, May Sabe Phyu said. "It's based on extreme hatred," she added. "It's focused on a particular religion."
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has adopted sweeping political and economic reforms since taking over from a military junta in March 2011.
But it has struggled to contain religious tension that has grown alongside a movement led by nationalist Buddhist monks and known by the numerals "969", which have come to symbolize an effort aimed at isolating Muslims.
Leading 969 monks met in Yangon last June to draft a proposal for laws to restrict interfaith marriages.
But a panel of monks responsible for regulating Myanmar's Buddhist clergy decided they had overstepped their authority by trying to formulate legislation and barred any formal groups based around the 969 movement, the panel's Yangon vice chairman, Ashin Baddanda Guna Linkara, told Reuters.
Some leading 969 monks then formed the Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion, which did get an unofficial endorsement from the regulatory panel, Ashin Baddanda Guna Linkara said.
The committee's leaders joined in a ceremony this month to receive "guidance" from the regulating panel, he said.
Rights group Human Rights Watch in March said President Thein Sein had sent a letter to Shwe Mann, the speaker of parliament, suggesting that the body draft the four laws to "preserve race and religion".
At the time, Human Rights Watch said it saw a draft of the interfaith marriage law, which would restrict Buddhist women to marrying fellow Buddhists and require people of other faiths to convert to Buddhism before marrying a Buddhist.
No women's groups or religious bodies except for Buddhists were consulted in drafting the laws, said May Sabe Phyu, the activist, whose parents are Buddhist and Christian.
"The whole process was kept secret," she said, adding that lawmakers concerned about women's rights should focus instead on laws to prevent domestic violence.
"Whether you marry a Muslim, a Buddhist or a Christian man, many women are forced to suffer violence in their home," she said. "Instead of having these laws, why not have a law to protect women against violence?"
Additional reporting by Minzayar Oo in YANGON