U.S. State Department International Religious Freedom Report: Burma

Habib Siddiqui

Posted Nov 25, 2005      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Recently the U.S. State Department released the International Religious Freedom Report (2005). The report (by no means a comprehensive one) cited the plight of the Muslim minority (estimated at more than 8 millions), including the Rohingya people of Arakan, living in Myanmar (Burma).

The level of atrocity and ethnic cleansing that is criminally practiced by the military junta against these unfortunate is simply without a parallel in the 21st century.  I have excerpted relevant passages that deal with the condition of Muslim minorities in Burma. For the full report, interested reader may read:

Habib Siddiqui
International Religious Freedom Report 2005 on Burma

(Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, U.S. State Department)

The country has been ruled since 1962 by highly repressive, authoritarian military regimes. Since 1988, when the armed forces brutally suppressed massive pro-democracy demonstrations, a junta composed of senior military officers has ruled by decree, without a constitution or legislature. Most adherents of religions that are registered with the authorities generally are allowed to worship as they choose; however, the Government imposes restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently abuses the right to freedom of religion.

There was no change in the limited respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. In October 2004, the military intelligence apparatus that, as part of its responsibilities, covertly and overtly monitored religious activities in the country was disbanded; however, the Government continued to infiltrate and monitor the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations. The Government systematically discouraged and prohibited minority religions from constructing new places of worship, and actively promoted Buddhism over other religions, particularly among members of the minority ethnic groups. Christian and Muslim groups continued to experience difficulties in obtaining permission to repair existing churches or build new ones in most regions. Anti-Muslim violence continued to occur, as did the monitoring of Muslims’ activities. Restrictions also continued on worship countrywide of non-Buddhist minority groups. There were no reports of forced conversions of non-Buddhists or forced labor to build Buddhist pagodas.

There were flare-ups of Muslim-Buddhist violence during the period covered by this report. Persistent social tensions remained between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities, largely due to old British colonial and contemporary government preferences. Widespread prejudice continued to exist against citizens of South Asian origin, most of whom are Muslims.

Since 1999, the U.S. Secretary of State has designated Burma as a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The U.S. Government has a wide array of economic sanctions in place against the country for its violations of human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has an area of approximately 261,970 square miles, and its population is estimated to be 52 million. The majority of the population is Theravada Buddhist, although in practice popular Buddhism in the country includes veneration of many indigenous pre-Buddhist deities called “nats” and coexists with astrology, numerology, and fortune telling. Buddhist monks, including novices, number more than 400,000 and depend on the laity for their material needs, including clothing and daily donations of food. There is a much smaller number of Buddhist nuns. There are Christian minorities (mostly Catholics, as well as Baptists, Anglicans, and an array of other Protestant denominations), Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to official statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 percent practices Christianity, and 4 percent practices Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimate the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Muslim leaders claim that there are approximately 7 to 10 million Muslims in the country, which is about 14 to 20 percent of the population—although it is impossible to verify this number. Ņ

Islam is practiced widely in Arakan State, where it is the dominant religion of the Rohingya minority, and in Irrawaddy Division. Islam is also practiced by Burmans, Indians, and ethnic Bengalis.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

The country has been ruled since 1962 by highly authoritarian military regimes. The current military government, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has governed without a constitution or legislature since 1988. Most adherents of religions that are registered with the authorities generally enjoy the right to worship as they choose; however, the Government has imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently has abused the right to religious freedom

There is no official state religion; however, in practice the Government continued to show a preference for Theravada Buddhism. Since independence, successive governments, civilian and military, have supported and associated themselves conspicuously with Buddhism. The Ministry of Religious Affairs includes a powerful Department for the Promotion and Propagation of Sasana (Buddhist teaching).
Virtually all organizations, religious or otherwise, must be registered with the Government. A government directive exempts “genuine” religious organizations from registration; however, in practice only registered organizations can buy or sell property or open bank accounts; these requirements lead most religious organizations to register. Ņ

Buddhist doctrine remained part of the state-mandated curriculum in all elementary schools. Students could opt out of instruction in Buddhism, and sometimes did. All students are required to recite a Buddhist prayer daily. Some Muslim students are allowed to leave the room during this act, while at some schools non-Buddhists are forced to recite the prayer. The Government continued to fund two state Sangha Universities in Rangoon and Mandalay to train Buddhist monks under the control of the state-sponsored State Monk Coordination Committee (“Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee,” or SMNC). The Government also funded one university intended to teach noncitizens about Theravada Buddhism.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Authorities have refused to approve requests for gatherings to celebrate traditional Muslim holidays and restricted the number of Muslims that can gather in one place. For instance, Muslim groups reported that authorities selected sites for the annual Eid al-Adha sacrifices and did not allow them to occur in Rangoon. Muslims also reported that the Eid al-Adha ceremonies were restricted to 3 hours.

In June 2005, authorities in Shwepyitha Township, Rangoon Division, arrested eight Muslims, including the imam of the community and charged them for holding group prayers at the imam’s house. At the end of the period covered by this report they remained in detention pending trial. Also, a Muslim cleric was arrested in South Dagon for holding private Qur’an courses for Muslim children at his house.

Also in June 2005, authorities forced a Muslim private tutor to close down his school. Although he was teaching only public school curriculum, he was accused of trying to convert children to Islam by offering free courses

Muslims reported that they essentially were banned from constructing new mosques anywhere in the country, and they had great difficulty in obtaining permission to repair or expand existing structures. Some authorities reportedly destroy informal houses of worship or unauthorized religious construction they discover. Buddhist groups are not known to have experienced similar difficulties in obtaining permission to build pagodas, monasteries, or community religious hallsŅ.

In most regions of the country, Christian and Muslim groups that sought to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations did so with informal approval from local authorities. However, informal approval from local authorities creates a tenuous legal situation. When local authorities or conditions have changed, informal approvals for construction have been rescinded abruptly and construction halted. In some cases, buildings have been torn down, though there were no cases reported during the period covered by this report.

Since the 1960s, Christian and Islamic groups have had difficulties importing religious literature into the country. All publications, religious and secular, remain subject to control and censorship. Translations of the Bible into indigenous languages cannot be imported legally. The Government provides a small fund to recognized Christian and Muslim groups for publishing approved Burmese-language Bibles and Qur’ans.

Additionally, officials have occasionally allowed local printing of limited copies of other religious material (with notation that they were for internal use only) in indigenous languages without prior approval by government censors.

During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of the confiscation of Bibles, Qur’ans, or other religious materials. In 2003, authorities in Rangoon reportedly seized a shipment of Qur’ans illegally imported from Bangladesh. In 2002, the German-based company Good Books for All was allowed to distribute 10,000 Bibles in the country. Bibles and Qur’ans continued to be smuggled into the country.

State censorship authorities continued to enforce special restrictions on the local publication of the Bible, the Qur’an, and Christian and Muslim publications in general. The most onerous restriction was a list of over 100 prohibited words that the censors would not allow in Christian or Islamic literature because they are indigenous or Pali language terms long used in Buddhist literature. Many of these words have been used and accepted by some of the country’s Christian and Muslim groups since the colonial period. Organizations that translate and publish non Buddhist religious texts were appealing these restrictions. In addition, according to other reports, the censors have objected to passages of the Old Testament and the Qur’an that they believe approve the use of violence against nonbelievers. There have been no reports of arrests or prosecutions for possession of any traditional religious literature in recent years.

The Government sometimes expedited its burdensome passport issuance procedures for Muslims making the Hajj or Buddhists going on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, India, although it limited the number of pilgrims. During the period covered by this report, immigration and passport office officials continued to use the occasion of the Hajj to extort bribes from would-be travelers.

Religious affiliation is indicated on government-issued identification cards that citizens and permanent residents of the country are required to carry at all times. Having “Muslim” on the cards often led to harassment by police or immigration authorities. Citizens also were required to indicate their religion on some official application forms such as passports.

Non-Buddhists continued to experience employment discrimination at upper levels of the public sector.  Ņ There were no non-Buddhists who held flag rank in the armed forces. There were no non-Buddhist members of the Central Executive Committee of the largest opposition group—the National League for Democracy—although the party remained popular among persons of all religions in the country. The Government discouraged Muslims from entering military service, and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspired a promotion beyond middle ranks were encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism.

Muslims in Arakan State, on the western coast, and particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience particularly severe legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination. The Government denied citizenship status to Rohingyans on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as required by the country’s citizenship law. Although essentially treated as foreigners, Rohingya Muslims are not issued Foreigner Registration Cards (FRCs). Instead the Government gives them “Temporary Registration Cards,” which give them status preferential to a foreign resident. Non-Rohingya Muslims also are not considered citizens by the authorities. In order for these Muslims to get National Registration Cards and passports, they must pay large bribes. Ethnic Burman Muslims pay less than ethnic minority Muslims.

Since 1988, the Government has permitted only three marriages per year per village in the primarily Rohingya townships of Maungdaw and Buthidaung in northern Arakan State. During the period covered by this report, the Government extended this edict to the central Arakan townships of Kyauk Pyu and Ramree Townships in central Arakan State. Following the ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in October 2004 and the demise of military intelligence, marriage restrictions were temporarily lifted but reportedly reinstated in 2005.

Muslims across the country, as well as ethnic minority groups such as Chinese and Indian, are required to obtain permission from the township authorities whenever they wish to leave their hometown. Authorities generally do not grant permission to Rohingya or Muslim Arakanese to travel from their hometowns for any purpose. However, permission sometimes can be obtained through bribery. Non-Arakanese Muslims are given more freedom to travel; however, they must also seek permission, which is usually granted after a bribe is paid.

The Government reserves secondary education for citizens only; Rohingyans do not have access to state-run schools beyond primary education and are unable to obtain most civil service positions.

Abuses of Religious Freedom

It remained difficult to get permission to repair existing mosques, although internal renovations were reportedly allowed. In October 2004, local authorities confiscated a Muslim cemetery in Myeik Township, Tanintharyi Division, and closed the adjacent mosque. Three Muslims were reportedly imprisoned for a month for violating this closure order. In November 2004, authorities in three suburbs of Rangoon ordered the closure of informal “religious community houses” used by local Muslims in lieu of mosques (which have not been built in these townships). After Muslim leaders in Rangoon complained, community houses in two of the three suburbs were allowed to re-open.

In 2002, local authorities in Arakan State scheduled approximately 40 mosques and religious community houses for destruction, including some in the state capital Sittwe, because they were reportedly built without permission. At that time, religious leaders in Rangoon Division and Karen State made other such allegations. Thirteen mosques were destroyed in Arakan before the authorities desisted at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Government subsequently gave written permission to repair existing mosques in some areas. However, to ensure that destroyed mosques were not rebuilt, they were replaced with government-owned buildings, monasteries, and Buddhist temples.

In the past, SPDC authorities have made efforts to “dilute” ethnic minority populations by encouraging, or even forcing, Buddhist Burmans to relocate. Certain townships in the Arakan State, such as Thandwe, Gwa, and Taung-gut, were declared “Muslim-free zones” by government decree in 1983. There are still original-resident Muslims living in Thandwe, but new Muslims are not allowed to buy property or reside in the township. Muslims no longer are permitted to live in Gwa and Taung-gut.

During the period covered by this report, there were several reports of small clashes in Rangoon and Arakan State between Muslims and Buddhist monks, particularly during or just prior to the Muslim Eid holidays. The most serious of these occurred in Kyauk Pyu, Arakan State, in January 2005. During several days of violence, two Muslims were killed and one Buddhist monk was severely injured. Some Muslim groups blamed the Government for trying to increase tensions between Buddhists and Muslims as part of a “divide and rule” strategy. Reportedly in May 2004, local Buddhist villagers in Kyun Su Township, Tanintharyi Division, attacked and destroyed the properties of 14 Muslim families. Despite a complaint from Muslim leaders, the Government had not taken any action by the end of the period covered by this report.

In 2003, there were several violent incidents involving Muslims and Buddhists. In June 2003, there were unverified reports of incitement of anti-Muslim violence by USDA members in Irrawaddy Division. In November 2003, troops reportedly fired on monks protesting the arrest of a local abbot and killed two of them. Authorities have not investigated the incidents.

In both Kyaukse and Rangoon, witnesses claimed that many Buddhist attackers systematically were transported into and out of the Muslim areas. Others claimed to see monks carrying pistols and walkie-talkies under their robes. Muslim leaders insisted that Buddhist-Muslim relations in Rangoon and elsewhere were harmonious, suggesting only provocateurs could spark this kind of violence. While the specifics of how these attacks began and who carried them out have not been documented fully, it appears that the Government was, at best, slow to protect Muslims and their property from destruction. The violence significantly heightened tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

In the aftermath of these 2003 attacks, the authorities paid some compensation to the affected Muslims and gave permission to the Kyaukse Muslims to rebuild the two mosques destroyed in the violence. The reconstruction had not occurred because most Muslims had not returned to their previous neighborhoods. In addition, the Government arrested and defrocked 44 monks and 26 other Buddhists suspected of participation in the Kyaukse and Rangoon violence and imposed a 7 p.m. curfew on all monasteries. The curfew was subsequently limited to between 9 p.m. and 4 a.m., although it was applied countrywide. There were unverified reports that one senior monk received a death sentence; it was not known what sentences the other monks received. These measures caused some tension between the Government and the usually favored Buddhist monkhood, leading to some localized demonstrations inside Rangoon monasteries.

Seventy Muslims were arrested and 31 Kyaukse Muslims were sentenced in December 2003 (1 received the death penalty) for their involvement in the violence, including the alleged murder of a senior Buddhist monk. Muslim leaders called the trials a mockery of justice, but they did not address the veracity of the charges.

Many of the roughly 20,000 Rohingya Muslims remaining in refugee camps in Bangladesh have refused to return because they fear human rights abuses, including religious persecution.

There were no known arrests of Buddhist monks or nuns during the period covered by this report. Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) estimated that as of January 2004, there were 300 Buddhist monks in prison for various offenses. The number of non-Buddhist religious figures in prison or those imprisoned for their religious beliefs was unknown. The AAPP estimate could not be verified nor could a complete listing of those imprisoned be obtained. Monks serving sentences of life in prison reportedly included the Venerable U Thondara of Myingyan (arrested during the 1988 anti-government demonstrations).

Muslim leaders reported that military intelligence officials arrested several Muslim religious teachers in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State, in September 2004 following a fatwa issued against individuals who had allegedly raped a Muslim girl. One of the teachers reportedly was tortured to death in detention. The others were subsequently released.

There continued to be credible reports from diverse regions of the country that government officials compelled persons, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, especially in rural areas, to contribute money, food, or materials to state-sponsored projects to build, renovate, or maintain Buddhist religious shrines or monuments. The Government denied that it used coercion and called these contributions “voluntary donations” consistent with Buddhist ideas of merit making. Unlike in previous years, during the period covered by this report, there were no reports that Muslims or Christians were compelled to build Buddhist pagodas.

In the past, pagodas or government buildings often have been built on confiscated Muslim land. In 2003, authorities in Kyun Su Township, Tanintharyi Division, seized Muslim religious land on which they planned to build a pagoda. Despite complaints by Muslim leaders to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the regional military commander, the Government had taken no action in this case by the end of the period covered by this report.

Forced Religious Conversion

Muslim and Christian community leaders reported that during the period covered by this report, authorities had moved away from a campaign of forced conversion to Buddhism and instead focused on enticing non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism using charitable activities or outright bribery. Conversion of non Buddhists, coerced or otherwise, is part of a longstanding Government campaign to “Burmanize” ethnic minority regions. This campaign has coincided, in Chin State in particular, with increased military presence. In October 2004, in northwestern Shan State, a local government-backed abbot reportedly pressured local Christians to convert to Buddhism, using threats or bribery. Also during the period, there was a single, unverified report of forced conversions at gunpoint in Chin State. However, Christian groups reported these types of violent cases were less frequent than 2 or 3 years ago.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

There are social tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities. Preferential treatment, in hiring and in other areas—for non-Buddhists during British colonial rule, and for Buddhists since independence—is a key source of these tensions. There is widespread prejudice against ethnic Indians, particularly ethnic Bengalis, many of whom are Muslims.