2 years ago

Religious freedom in Myanmar and international law

Rakhine Buddhist monks hold posters and placards as they take part in a protest against the use of the phrase ‘Muslim community in Rakhine state’ in Sittwe of Rakhine state, in Myanmar (July 3, 2016). —EPA Photo
Rakhine Buddhist monks hold posters and placards as they take part in a protest against the use of the phrase ‘Muslim community in Rakhine state’ in Sittwe of Rakhine state, in Myanmar (July 3, 2016). —EPA Photo

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The Office of International Religious Freedom has recently issued its 2020 report on observance of religious freedom in Myanmar. This has drawn the world's attention given recent media coverage observing that friction between the Buddhist majority population and other ethnic and religious minorities is again on the rise in Myanmar.

It has been observed that this growing apathy in that country is inconsistent with that country's constitution. It may be noted that Myanmar's constitution guarantees every citizen "the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution." The law also apparently prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs.

The world, it may be recalled, remembers the violence, discrimination, and harassment in Myanmar's Rakhine State that targeted ethnic Rohingyas, nearly all Muslims and also other minority populations elsewhere in the country. In fact, the Myanmar military's commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against the Rohingya population in August 2017, during the civilian government led by now imprisoned Aung San Suu Chi displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh. Their number in Bangladesh, taking into account earlier such displacement, before 2017 and the number of births that have taken place in the Rohingya refugee camps since 2017, now stands at about 1.1 million.

An estimated 520,000 to 600,000 Rohingyas still remain in the Rakhine State. Among them an estimated 130,000 are living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are also small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. In addition, there is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

It would also be worthwhile to note that the Rohingya people living in Myanmar have continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs).

Rohingyas are still suffering ongoing abuses in Rakhine State because of the continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign. During the year, several UN entities have also commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government's goal of "exterminating their basic identity."

Religious leaders and civil society activists have reported that some government and military officials have continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumours and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh have also faced mass disenfranchisement during the Myanmar general elections held in November, 2020 because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds.

Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims have also indicated that  the authorities are restricting religious practices, denying freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closing places of worship, denying or failing to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminating in employment and housing. It has been observed that the selective denial of humanitarian assistance by the Myanmar military is now prevalent in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States.

    Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity is also practised widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although some Karen are Muslims. Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindus or Muslims, although some are Christians. Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practise traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs. According to media reports, ethnic armed organisations in the country have continued to pose threats to religious freedom. In the Wa Self-administered Division, where the government has very little administrative control, the United WA State Army (UWSA) has tightened restrictions on practising Christianity and has laid down the rule that such worship would be limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Similarly, it has been noted that some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) have continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. They have continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. Interestingly, attention in this regard has also been drawn by the Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analysing hate speech, that more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates were registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People's Pioneer Party.

It would however be pertinent to note that some Myanmar civil society groups, despite difficulties, are trying in their own way to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices. This has been reflected  in the "White Rose" campaign that was constituted after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down of temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019.

It would be pertinent to observe at this point that in June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted that freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. Such a view is consistent with U.S. financial sanctions that have been imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups. It may also be added that U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, has frequently been meeting with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and have also called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging. It also needs to be observed that on December 2, 2020, the then U.S.Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a a "Country of Particular Concern" (CPC) and reiterated sanction that is consistent with this designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

It would be significant to note here that according to Myanmar law, all organisations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organisations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organisations however specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) also oversees the government's relations with Buddhist monks and schools. Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies start the school day with a Buddhist prayer. This is not permitted in the case of Muslim Madrasas or most schools run by some other religions.

One should also note another interesting aspect within the Myanmar dimension. Four laws passed in 2015 were supposedly for the "protection of race and religion", and they remain very much in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, or suffer penalties for noncompliance.

The Religious Conversion law also regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion. However, the law is rarely applied, as many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days. If the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorising local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country's penal code also criminalises.

All of the above processes within the legal paradigm continue to prevail in Myanmar and that country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In this regard one needs to recall how accountability has ceased to exist in that country because the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity. According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year's end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

However, nothing has happened since then. Important and powerful countries are only bothered about democracy in Myanmar but they have failed to look into the issue of whether religious freedom is being practised in the country consistent with international law and democratic practices.


Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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