Parliamentary report recommends referendum to solve the dual citizenship saga: Here’s why it won’t happen


File 20180517 155623 1n8q8hg.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The dual citizenship saga that has rocked the parliament in recent months is unlikely to end any time soon.
Shutterstock

Lorraine Finlay, Murdoch University

The release of the report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) into section 44 of the Australian Constitution is the latest chapter in the long-running dual citizenship saga. The committee was asked to consider the impact of section 44 and options for reform.

While the report emphasises it is for the Australian people to decide on the appropriate qualifications of their elected representatives, its very title – Excluded: The impact of section 44 on Australian democracy – is a clue to the final view adopted by the majority of JSCEM.

Is a referendum the answer?

The key recommendation of JSCEM is that there should be a referendum proposing either that sections 44 and 45 of the Constitution are repealed, or that the words “until the Parliament otherwise provides” be inserted into those sections.




Read more:
Explainer: what the High Court decision on Katy Gallagher is about and why it matters


The majority report states that the problems caused by section 44 are “wide-ranging” and “have significant and detrimental implications” for Australia’s democracy.

If either of the recommended referendum questions were passed, the effect would be to remove the disqualification criteria from the Constitution and instead leave it to the parliament to enact laws governing this area. This would supposedly allow for disqualification laws that better reflect modern community standards.

There are several practical problems with this, and that is without considering the underlying substantive question of whether section 44 should actually be changed.

The first problem is that it is highly unlikely a referendum would succeed, a point acknowledged by JSCEM. To succeed, a referendum question must be approved by not only a majority of voters across the country, but also a majority of voters in a majority of states. That means a referendum can be defeated with only 19.8% of Australians (being a majority of voters in each of the four smallest states) voting no.

It is highly unlikely that the Australian people would vote “yes” in a referendum that simply asks them to repeal section 44 – which is precisely what JSCEM has recommended. That would not only mean voting “yes” to allowing dual citizens to be elected (itself a controversial proposition), but would also allow individuals to be elected where they have been convicted of treason, are under sentence for a serious crime, or have a financial conflict of interest.

To be fair, JSCEM goes on to recommend that if the referendum passes, the parliament should enact laws to address matters of qualification and disqualification. Any such laws would most likely ensure that many of the circumstances described above would still result in disqualification.

But the difficulty with this is two-fold. The first is that – rightly or wrongly – many Australians blame our politicians for the problems with section 44. The idea they should put those same politicians in charge of deciding what disqualifications should apply to politicians in the future is unlikely to be met with great enthusiasm.

The second difficulty is that JSCEM is asking us to consider constitutional change in a vacuum. How can the Australian people judge whether or not to vote for repealing section 44 without knowing what, if anything, will replace it?

The committee suggests the removal or amendment of section 44 is a “necessary prerequisite” to a public debate on what constitutes appropriate parliamentary disqualifications.

I would suggest the opposite is true. A public debate on what constitutes appropriate parliamentary disqualifications is a necessary prerequisite to any referendum suggesting the removal or amendment of section 44.

In any event, the question of a referendum appears to be academic, with the government ruling out this option almost as soon as the JSCEM report was released.

The minority report

It is somewhat surprising that with recent polls suggesting a majority of Australians support the dual citizenship disqualification, only one committee member reflected this view and concluded constitutional change was not required.




Read more:
Dual citizenship debacle claims five more MPs – and sounds a stern warning for future parliamentarians


In his minority report, Liberal Ben Morton stated “there has been no compelling argument” to remove the dual citizenship disqualification. He also confirmed he would campaign against any constitutional change attempting to remove this requirement.

This provides further insight into why a referendum will not occur. A government holding a one-seat majority simply cannot risk the distraction and destabilisation of a constitutional referendum that would divide its own members.

Other reform options?

Despite this, majority report did go on to recommend a number of practical strategies to “mitigate the impact of section 44” if constitutional change is not pursued.

These include the development of online self-assessment tools, additional education and support for candidates, formalising the parliamentary referral process, and working with foreign governments to streamline citizenship renunciations.

These are mostly sensible recommendations that will encourage greater compliance with the existing constitutional provisions. Given it is highly unlikely a referendum will happen, they are also the most important in practical terms.

The JSCEM report provides a number of practical recommendations to improve compliance with section 44. But it also confirms there is no easy fix.

The ConversationInstead, it looks as though the dual citizenship saga still has a long way to go.

Lorraine Finlay, Lecturer in Law, Murdoch University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

A model for an Australian republic that can unite republicans and win a referendum



File 20180118 53302 1l2z3hv.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A proposed model for an Australian republic encourages active citizenship while preserving the non-partisan, ceremonial role of the head of state.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Benjamin T. Jones, Australian National University

As the debate continues over whether Australia Day should be celebrated on January 26, this series looks at the politics of some unresolved issues swirling around Australia Day – namely, the republic and reconciliation. And just for good measure, we’ll check the health of Australian slang along the way.


The lesson of 1999 is that an Australian republic can only come about if republicans unite. Minimalists want a small-change republic, in which parliament appoints the head of state. This, they argue, will ensure the head of state does not have a popular mandate and will not interfere in day-to-day politics.

It will also preserve the character of the role. Like the current governor-general, minimalists want the role to be an honour bestowed on a worthy servant, not a prize sought through ambitious campaigning.

Direct electionists believe the spirit of republicanism is active participation. They do not want politicians to simply choose a head of state; instead, they desire a system in which the people are involved.

The hybrid model below, designed by Paul Pickering and I, aims to ensure the process is democratic but also that the dignity of the office of head of state is maintained. It harnesses the best features of minimalism and direct election.

A hybrid solution

Under our model, each state and territory parliament nominates an Australian citizen to be head of state. There is no obligation to nominate someone who was born in or who resides in that particular state.

In the opinion of at least two-thirds of sitting MPs, the nominee must:

  • be an Australian citizen over 18;

  • have served the nation with distinction in their chosen field or fields;

  • be of exemplary personal character and integrity; and

  • be willing to serve as head of state for a term of five years.

Each parliament must nominate a different person. The eight nominees are then put to a non-compulsory, first-past-the-post, national vote.

The vote is non-compulsory to emphasise this is a titular and ceremonial role. Australians do not currently vote for the governor-general or the Queen, and should not have to vote for the head of state in a republic, either.

This model deliberately casts a wide net but is protected by two hurdles. A nominee must be endorsed first by a parliamentary majority and second by a public vote.

Some minimalists argue that, under a direct-election model, an exploitative populist or crass former sports star might become head of state. The twin hurdles of our hybrid model serve as a bulwark against unbridled populism, but ultimately defer to democracy. If a nominee has the confidence of both an elected parliament and the people, they deserve to be the head of state, regardless of their critics.

The nominee with the most votes becomes the Australian head of state and serves a five-year term.


The Conversation, CC BY-ND

To campaign or not?

In the lead-up to the vote, the merits of each nominee are explained on the Australian Electoral Commission website. A small education budget is allocated to introduce the nominees to the public without any preference shown.

There is no need for nominees to campaign, but no penalty if they do. If supporters of a particular nominee want to conduct a traditional campaign with slogans, posters, advertisements and the like, that is their prerogative.

Many Australians would consider electioneering to be beneath the dignity of the office of head of state. Ultimately, our model puts its faith in the Australian people. They will dictate what kind of behaviour is appropriate on election day.

Casting a wide net

One possible criticism of our model is that the people can choose from just eight nominees. Opening it up to all casts a wider net in theory, but in reality it excludes many worthy candidates.

A simple direct-election model would likely result in only the wealthy, former politicians, or those with support from powerful lobby groups being nominated. In many cases, the kind of person we want as head of state is not the kind of person who would seek out such an honour.

Needing a two-thirds majority, state and territory parliaments will look for worthy individuals in a bipartisan manner. It is then over to the people to choose.

It should also be remembered that citizens are free to petition their government to endorse any particular individual.

The best of both worlds

One of our model’s strengths is that it encourages active citizenship while preserving the non-partisan, ceremonial role of the head of state.

With nominations from across the states and territories, Australians will be presented with a diverse choice of distinguished individuals.

Like the nominations for Australian of the Year, it will be an opportunity to recognise and honour Australians from different walks of life. Citizens are encouraged but not coerced into deciding who they want as their representative on the international stage.

The most important feature of our model is that it preserves the current power relation between the head of state and parliament.

Like the present governor-general, the head of state under our model will be a guardian of the Constitution. They will hold important reserve powers but will be bound by convention and protocol to use them only in the event of a constitutional crisis. They should carry themselves in a manner that brings honour to the country and should tirelessly promote Australia at home and abroad.

Let democracy rule

It’s worth reiterating that republicans must unite and be committed, above all, to democracy. Only with this attitude can the lazy impulse to revert to the status quo be overcome.

An Australian should be the Australian head of state. Our Constitution should be thoroughly democratic and independent. We should be able to tell our kids that they can grow up to be anything, even the head of state.


Benjamin T. Jones’ new book This Time: Australia’s Republican Past and Future is published by Black Inc.


The ConversationCatch up on others in the series here.

Benjamin T. Jones, Australian Research Council Fellow, School of History, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shorten pledges republic vote in first term



File 20170728 1689 1o8gnbg
Bill Shorten will seek to elevate the issue of a republic by pledging.
a policy for quick action.
Julian Smith/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A Shorten government would ask voters in its first term whether they supported Australia becoming a republic.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, addressing the Australian Republic Movement’s dinner on Saturday, will seek to elevate the issue by pledging
that “by the end of our first term, we will put a simple, straightforward question to the people of Australia: Do you support an Australian republic with an Australian head of state?

“If the yes vote prevails – and I’m optimistic it will – then we can consider how that head of state is chosen.”

He will say that in a Labor government a minister would be given direct responsibility for advancing the debate.

The Shorten policy for quick action on a republic contrasts with Malcolm Turnbull’s position, which is that the public will not want the issue back on the agenda until after the Queen’s reign ends.

Labor’s two-stage process – with the first stage a general plebiscite question about wanting a republic, followed by a referendum which would incorporate a model – is designed to maximise the chances of support.

But the issue of the model and the requirements of a referendum – which needs an overall majority and a majority of states to pass – would still remain the difficult hurdle.

The 1999 unsuccessful referendum proposed the president of the republic be chosen by parliament, but it is likely that these days people would want a directly elected president – a model that raises more issues.

Shorten will say in his speech: “We cannot risk being caught in a referendum like the last one, where Australians were given one vote to settle two questions. When a lot of people voted ‘no’ because of the model, not because of the republic.

“The first, clear question we ask the people should be whether we want an Australian head of state. And the debate should be about why. About our sense of Australia, our history and above all, our future.”

In London recently Malcolm Turnbull declared himself an “Elizabethan”. In contrast, Shorten will say: “I have tremendous regard for the Queen and her service. But I am not an Elizabethan. I’m a Victorian. I’m an Australian.”

He will say he is confident that if Australia became a republic, “Queen Elizabeth would farewell us with the same affection and good grace she has shown every time a Commonwealth nation has made the decision to cut its ties with the monarchy.

“We can vote for a republic and still respect Queen Elizabeth.”

Shorten will acknowledge that the republic issue “isn’t front of mind of everyone, but I don’t buy the argument that we can’t have this debate until every other problem in the nation has been solved.

“In these fractious times, governments age quickly and lead short lives.

The Conversation“It’s no good hoping for a popular groundswell – we must set a direction and bring people with us, and we have to do it early.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/axx2w-6d8662?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Scotland: Independence Referendum in September 2014


The link below is to an article that reports on the Scottish Independence Referendum to be held on the 18th September 2014.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2013/mar/21/scottish-independence-referendum-date

Prospects Dim for Religious Freedom in Nepal


Right to share faith could harm Nepal’s Hindu identity, lawmakers believe.

KATHMANDU, Nepal, March 29 (CDN) — A new constitution that Nepal’s parliament is scheduled to put into effect before May 28 may not include the right to propagate one’s faith.

The draft constitution, aimed at completing the country’s transition from a Hindu monarchy to a secular democracy, contains provisions in its “religious freedom” section that prohibit anyone from converting others from one religion to another.

Most political leaders in the Himalayan country seemed unaware of how this prohibition would curb religious freedom.

“Nepal will be a secular state – there is no other way,” said Sushil Koirala, president of the Nepali Congress, Nepal’s “Grand Old Party,” but he added that he was not aware of the proposal to restrict the right to evangelism.

“Forcible conversions cannot be allowed, but the members of the Constituent Assembly [acting parliament] should be made aware of [the evangelism ban’s] implications,” Koirala, a veteran and one of the most influential politicians of the country, told Compass.

Gagan Thapa, another leader of the Nepali Congress, admitted that banning all evangelistic activities could lead to undue restrictions.

“Perhaps, the words, ‘force, inducement and coercion’ should be inserted to prevent only unlawful conversions,” he told Compass.

Man Bahadur Bishwakarma, also from the Nepali Congress, said that of all the faith communities in Nepal, Christians were most active in converting others, sometimes unethically.

“There are problems in Hinduism, such as the caste hierarchy, but that doesn’t mean you should convert out of it,” he said. “I believe in reforming one’s religion.”

Asked if the restriction on converting others violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Akal Bahadur of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) said, “It may, but there was a general consensus on it [the prohibition]. Besides, it is still a draft, not the final constitution.”

Nepal signed the ICCPR on May 14, 1991. Article 18 of the ICCPR includes the right to manifest one’s religion, which U.N. officials have interpreted as the right to evangelistic and missionary activities.

Akal Bahadur and Thapa are members of the Committee on Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles, which was tasked to propose the scope of religious freedom and other rights in the draft constitution. This committee, one of 11 thematic panels, last year submitted a preliminary draft to the Assembly suggesting that a person should be allowed to decide whether to convert from one religion to another, but that no one should convert anyone else.

Binda Pandey, chairperson of the fundamental rights committee and member of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), told Compass that it was now up to the Assembly to decide whether this provision violates religious freedom.

The Constitution Committee is condensing the preliminary drafts by all the committees as one draft constitution. At least 288 contentious issues arose out of the 11 committees, and the Constitution Committee has resolved 175 of them, Raju Shakya of the Kathmandu-based Centre for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD) told Compass.

The “religious freedom” provision with its ban on evangelism did not raise an eyebrow, however, as it is among the issues listed under the “Area of Agreement” on the CCD Web site.

Once compiled, the draft constitution will be subject to a public consultation, after which another draft will be prepared for discussion of clauses in the Constitutional Assembly; provisions will be implemented on a two-thirds majority, Shakya said.

 

Hindu Identity

Thapa of the fundamental rights committee indicated that religious conversion could become a contentious issue if the proposed restriction is removed. Even the notion of a secular state is not wholly accepted in the country.

“If you hold a referendum on whether Nepal should become a secular state, the majority will vote against it,” Thapa said.

Most Hindus see their religion as an essential part of the country’s identity that they want to preserve, he added.

Dr. K.B. Rokaya, the only Christian member of Nepal’s National Commission for Human Rights, said Nepal’s former kings created and imposed a Hindu identity for around 240 years because it suited them; under the Hindu ethos, a king should be revered as a god. Most of the numerous Hindu temples of Nepal were built under the patronage of the kings.

Rokaya added that Christians needed to be more politically active. The Assembly does not have even one Christian member.

According to the 2001 census, over 80 percent of Nepal’s 30 million people are Hindu. Christians are officially .5 percent, but their actual number is believed to be much higher.

Nepal was the world’s only Hindu kingdom until 2006, when a people’s movement led by former Maoist guerrillas and supported by political parties, including the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist Leninist, ousted King Gyanendra.

An interim constitution was enacted in 2007, and the Constituent Assembly was elected through Nepal’s first fully democratic election a year later. The Assembly was supposed to promulgate a new constitution by May 28, 2010, but its term was extended by one year.

It is still uncertain, however, whether the approaching deadline will be met due to persistent disagreements among parties. The Maoist party has 220 members, the Nepali Congress 110, and the Unified Marxist Leninist 103 in the 575-member Assembly.

Rokaya, a member of the newly formed United Christians Alliance of Nepal, comprising a majority of Christian denominations, said Christians would continue to ask for full religious freedom. The use of inducement or force for conversions is deplorable, but the right to preach the tenets of one’s religion is a fundamental freedom, he added.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Police in Sudan Aid Muslim’s Effort to Take Over Church Plot


With possibility of secession by Southern Sudan, church leaders in north fear more land grabs.

NAIROBI, Kenya, October 25 (CDN) — Police in Sudan evicted the staff of a Presbyterian church from its events and office site in Khartoum earlier this month, aiding a Muslim businessman’s effort to seize the property.

Christians in Sudan’s capital city told Compass that police entered the compound of the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church (SPEC) on Oct. 4 at around 2 p.m. and ordered workers to leave, claiming that the land belonged to Muslim businessman Osman al Tayeb. When asked to show evidence of Al Tayeb’s ownership, however, officers failed to produce any documentation, the sources said.

The church had signed a contract with al Tayeb stipulating the terms under which he could attain the property – including providing legal documents such as a construction permit and then obtaining final approval from SPEC – but those terms remained unmet, church officials said.

Church leader Deng Bol said that under terms of the unfulfilled contract, the SPEC would turn the property over to al Tayeb to construct a business center on the site, with the denomination to receive a share of the returns from the commercial enterprise and regain ownership of the plot after 80 years.

“But the investor failed to produce a single document from the concerned authorities” and therefore resorted to police action to secure the property, Bol said.

SPEC leaders had yet to approve the project because of the high risk of permanently losing the property, he said.

“The SPEC feared that they were going to lose the property after 80 years if they accepted the proposed contract,” Bol said.

SPEC leaders have undertaken legal action to recover the property, he said. The disputed plot of 2,232 square meters is located in a busy part of the heart of Khartoum, where it has been used for Christian rallies and related activities.

“The plot is registered in the name of the church and should not be sold or transfered for any other activities, only for church-related programs,” a church elder who requested anonymity said.

The Rev. Philip Akway, general secretary of the SPEC, told Compass that the government might be annoyed that Christian activities have taken place there for many decades.

“Muslim groups are not happy with the church in north Sudan, therefore they try to cause tension in the church,” Akway told Compass.

The policeman leading the officers in the eviction on Oct. 4 verbally threatened to shoot anyone who interfered, Christian sources said.

“We have orders from higher authorities,” the policeman shouted at the growing throng of irate Christians.

A Christian association called Living Water had planned an exhibit at the SPEC compound on Oct. 6, but an organization leader arrived to find the place fenced off and deserted except for four policemen at the gate, sources said.

SPEC leaders said Muslims have taken over many other Christian properties through similar ploys.

“We see this as a direct plot against their churches’ estates in Sudan,” Akway said.

The Rev. John Tau, vice-moderator for SPEC, said the site where Al Tayeb plans to erect three towers was not targeted accidentally.

“The Muslim businessman seems to be targeting strategic places of the church in order to stop the church from reaching Muslims in the North Sudan,” Tau said.

The unnamed elder said church leaders believe the property grab came in anticipation of the proposed north-south division of Sudan. With less than three months until a Jan. 9 referendum on splitting the country according to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005, SPEC leaders have taken a number of measures to guard against what it sees as government interference in church affairs.

Many southern Sudanese Christians fear losing citizenship if south Sudan votes for secession in the forthcoming referendum.

A top Sudanese official has said people in south Sudan will no longer be citizens of the north if their region votes for independence. Information Minister Kamal Obeid told state media last month that south Sudanese will be considered citizens of another state if they choose independence, which led many northern-based southern Sudanese to begin packing.

At the same time, President Omar al-Bashir promised full protection for southern Sudanese and their properties in a recent address. His speech was reinforced by Vice President Ali Osman Taha’s address during a political conference in Juba regarding the signing of a security agreement with First Vice President Salva Kiir Mayardit (also president of the semi-autonomous Government of Southern Sudan), but Obeid’s words have not been forgotten.

Akway of SPEC said it is difficult to know what will become of the property.

“Police continue to guard the compound, and nobody knows for sure what the coming days will bring,” Akway said. “With just less than three months left for the South to decide its fate, we are forced to see this move as a serious development against the church in Sudan.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “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.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law


Already suppressed Christians say bill is designed to control growth.

THIMPHU, Bhutan, July 21 (CDN) — Christians in this Himalayan nation who are still longing to openly practice their faith were disheartened this month when the government proposed the kind of “anti-conversion” law that other nations have used as a pretext for falsely accusing Christians of “coercion.”

The amendment bill would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement” – vaguely enough worded, Christians fear, that vigilantes could use it to jail them for following the commands of Christ to feed, clothe and otherwise care for the poor.

“Now, under section 463 [of the Penal Code of Bhutan], a defendant shall be guilty of the offense of proselytization if the defendant uses coercion or other forms of inducement to cause the conversion of a person from one religion or faith to another,” reported the government-run Kuensel newspaper on July 9.

“There was always a virtual anti-conversion law in place, but now it is on paper too,” said a senior pastor from Thimphu on condition of anonymity. “Seemingly it is aimed at controlling the growth of Christianity.”

Kuenlay Tshering, a member of Bhutan’s Parliament and the chairperson of its Legislative Council, told Compass that the new section is consonant with Article 7(4) of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which states, “A Bhutanese citizen shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”

He said that the National Council had proposed that offenses under the proposal be classified as misdemeanors, punishable by one to less than three years in prison.

Tshering said that the amendment bill “may be passed during the next session of Parliament, after the National Assembly deliberates on it in the winter session.”

Asked if he was aware that similar “anti-conversion” laws in neighboring India had been misused to harass Christians through vague terms of “inducement,” he said he was not.

Authorities usually act on complaints by local residents against Christian workers, so frivolous complaints can lead to their arrest, said another pastor who requested anonymity.

Of the 683,407 people in Bhutan, over 75 percent are Buddhist, mainly from the west and the east. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

There are around 6,000 Christians, mostly ethnic Nepalese, but there is neither a church building nor a registered Christian institution. The Bible, however, has been translated into the national language, Dzongkha, as well as into Nepali.

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government has not officially recognized the presence of Christians, whose practice of faith remains confined to their homes.

The Drukpa Kagyue school of Mahayana Buddhism is the state religion, with Hinduism dominant in the south, according to Bhutan’s official website, which adds, “Some residues of Bon, animism and shamanism still exist in some pockets of the country,” but makes no mention of Christianity.

Still, since Bhutan became a democracy in 2008 after its first-ever elections – following more than 100 years of absolute monarchy – people have increasingly exercised their freedom, including religious choice.

 

‘Why More Religions?’

Home and Culture Minister Lyonpo Minjur Dorji told Compass that Bhutan’s government had “no problems” with Christianity or any other faith.

“But Bhutan is a small country, with a little more than 600,000 people, and a majority of them are Buddhist,” Dorji said. “We have Hindus, also mainly in southern parts. So why do we need more religions?”

Buddhism is closely linked with political and social life in Bhutan. Dorji’s office sits in a gigantic monastery in Thimphu known as Tashichho Dzong. Buddhism unites and brings people together, Dorji said, explaining that the social life of a village revolves around its dzong (monastery).

Dorji said India’s multi-religious society had led to tensions and bloodshed.

“India can survive riots and unrest,” he said, “but Bhutan may not, because it is a small country between two giants [India and China].”

With leaders who have been proud that they have not allowed it to be colonized, Bhutan historically has been keenly concerned about its survival. Bhutan’s people see their distinct culture, rather than the military, as having protected the country’s sovereignty. And it is no coincidence that Dorji’s portfolio includes both internal security and preservation of culture.

The constitution, adopted in July 2008, also requires the state to protect Bhutan’s cultural heritage and declares that Buddhism is the spiritual heritage of Bhutan.

A government official who requested anonymity said that, as Tibet went to China and Sikkim became a state in India, “now which of the two countries will get Bhutan?”

This concern is prevalent among the Bhutanese, he added.

Sikkim, now a state in India’s northeast, was a Buddhist kingdom with indigenous Bhotia and Lepcha people groups as its subjects. But Hindus from Nepal migrated to Sikkim for work and gradually outnumbered the local Buddhists. In 1975, a referendum was held to decide if Sikkim, then India’s protectorate, should become an official state of the country. Since over 75 percent of the people in Sikkim were Nepalese – who knew that democracy would mean majority-rule – they voted for its incorporation
into India.

Bhutan and India’s other smaller neighbors saw it as brazen annexation. And it is believed that Sikkim’s “annexation” made Bhutan wary of the influence of India.

In the 1980s, Bhutan’s king began a one-nation-one-people campaign to protect its sovereignty and cultural integrity, which was discriminatory to the ethnic Nepalese, who protested. Their non-compliance, however, resulted in a harsh crackdown by authorities, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

“Bhutan did not want to become another Sikkim,” said a local resident, explaining why the government did not tolerate the protests.

Bhutan is also rigorous in implementing its laws related to the use of the national language, the national dress code and the uniform architectural standards throughout the country to strengthen its cultural integrity. Bhutanese men are required to wear the gho, a knee-length robe tied at the waist by a cloth belt, when they go to work or attend a public function. Women have to wear the kira, an ankle-length dress clipped at one shoulder and tied at the waist. Non-compliance can lead to fine
and imprisonment.

 

Brighter Future

One hopeful pastor said he expects the government to officially acknowledge the existence of Christianity in Bhutan in the near future.

“Religious freedom will be good for both Christians and the government,” he said. “If Christians are not officially acknowledged, who will the government go to if it wants to implement an executive decision related to religious communities?”

Explaining the reason for his hope, he recalled an incident in the Punakha area in January, when a house under construction was demolished after rumors that it was used as a church.

“The house owner, a Christian, went to his majesty [King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck] and told him he was not constructing a church but would have worship with other believers on Sundays,” the pastor said. “The king allowed him to build the house.”

He also said that a delegation of Christians met with Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley in May 2009, who reassured them that there would be more freedom soon.

Christianity is gradually growing, but through word-of-mouth – testimonies of those who have received healing from sickness – and not public preaching, he said, adding that Christians needed to understand and be patient with the government, “which cannot and should not make changes or give freedom overnight.”

 

SIDEBAR

Christians’ Skulls, Bones Used for Buddhist Ritual

The ambiguity in Bhutan over the status of Christians has brought with it a new difficulty: A national daily recently reported that at least eight graves of Christians had been exhumed and the skulls and thigh bones extracted for a Buddhist ritual.

Although the report marked the first time the practice had made the news, Christian leaders said more than 100 graves have been dug up as the trade in human bones has been going on for more than five years.

A local resident of the Lamperi area, near Thimphu, identified as Namgay, told the Bhutan Observer that he found eight graves in a “secret forest graveyard” that had been exhumed by hunters of craniums and thigh bone.

“We saw skulls without craniums and a hand sticking out of a grave,” he was quoted as saying in the daily on May 27.

A human skull garners between 5,000 ngultrum (US$105) and 10,000 ngultrum (US$211) in Bhutan, with men’s skulls considered more valuable. The skull of a man affected by leprosy is not considered ideal for purification. Rather, such skulls are considered best for rituals to subdue evil spirits.

In a visit to the graveyard, the Bhutan Observer found at least eight graves freshly dug up. “Hand gloves, khaddar [a coarse homespun cotton cloth], a currency note, a wooden cross, and a wooden hammer lay scattered all over,” it reported.

The daily said the graveyard apparently belonged to the Christian community in Thimphu and nearby areas.

“Christians in the country say that there should be an official recognition that there are Christians in the country, and other things like burial rights will naturally follow,” the report noted.

A local pastor told Compass that since Christians did not have a burial ground, they buried their dead in forests.

“More than 100 bodies have been dug up, even though we have changed several locations for burial,” he said. “I wonder how the traders in human bones discover these locations. Where do we go now?”

Some local residents reportedly believe that a Christian grave brings bad luck.

Damcho Wangchu, a resident of Thinleygang area, told the daily that the area surrounding the graveyard was holy. He attributed all misfortune in the area – including storms, the death of three students and of four others – to the Christian cemetery.

“We never experienced such misfortunes in our gewog [cluster of villages] before,” he said.

The daily explained that the tradition of use of human skulls and thigh bones in Buddhist rituals was as old as Tantric Buddhism itself. “Thoepai Dagpa is a generic name for the text that illustrates the use and study of quality of skulls,” it reported.

Tantric Buddhism, widespread in Bhutan, involves rituals as a substitute or alternative for the earlier abstract meditations.

An editorial in the same newspaper noted, “Our hunt for the criminal will probably lead us from the unplanned graveyard to the sacred altar.”

Report from Compass Direct News