Despite religious freedom being a tenet of Burma’s Constitution, the US State Department reports that government practices and actions by security forces show that there exists apparent state-sanctioned religious discrimination and violence throughout the country, particularly towards Muslims.
According to the annual US State Department International Religious Freedom report – released on Monday morning in Washington DC as Muslims around the world celebrated the end of Ramadan – unwritten policies within the Burmese government restrict the freedom of Muslims and Christians in Burma, while a preference for Theravada Buddhism is apparent through state support for the funding of monasteries and Buddhist missionary activities.
Rohingya and non-Rohingya Muslims bear the brunt of both discrimination from their community and government security forces, said the report. In the contentious Arakan State, security forces isolated Muslim communities into camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) as part of a national strategy.
“These restrictions impeded the ability of Muslims, including Rohingyas, to pursue livelihoods, access markets, and engage other communities,” the report said, adding that government officials also denied Muslims access to government hospitals.
It also singled out the ultra-nationalist, anti-Muslim 969 movement as an instigator of violence against Muslims, such as the attacks in Meiktila last March which left between 44 and 87 people dead and destroyed more than 1,500 homes. This violence displaced about 11,000 people, mainly Muslims.
“The emergence of the 969 Movement coincided with a series of violent attacks against Muslims, starting with attacks in Meiktila on March 20,” the report said. “Some proponents of the 969 Movement made widespread use of social media to propagate hate speech and incitement to violence and passed out pamphlets and DVDs in communities across the country calling for boycotts of Muslims businesses and justifying anti-Muslim discrimination.”
Christians in Burma – who make up a large part of Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Chin and Naga ethnic minority groups – have not fared well either in the past year, with reports of the Burmese army injuring Christian religious leaders, damaging buildings and blocking access to churches during clashes in Kachin State.
“In September, government soldiers in northern Kachin State’s Putao district reportedly detained and physically abused Baptist clergy and stole alms from a Baptist church in Nhka Ga village,” the report said. “In late October, soldiers reportedly shelled a Baptist church harboring an estimated 700 villagers in Mung Ding Pa village.”
Ko Ni, a prominent Muslim lawyer in Rangoon, agreed with the US State Department’s assessment of a discrepancy between how the Constitution promises religious freedom and how the government acts in reality.
“While the government claims that they have a policy of religious freedom, non-Buddhists are still discriminated under unwritten policies and laws,” Ko Ni said, adding that Muslims are currently not allowed to join military officer training courses or hold senior positions in the government.
“There are skilled Muslim professionals such as doctors, etc., but they are evidently pushed aside from the government and management sectors and this proves that the government is going by an unwritten policy that is directly contradictory to the official policy provided in the Constitution,” he said.
Lashi La Aung, a Christian community leader based in Kachin State’s capital Myitkyina, said that the Burmese Army has systematically targeted churches around Kachin State in the past.
“The Burmese Army set fire to churches in conflict areas and completely destroyed some. They deploy troops inside churches knowing that these are places of worship,” Lashi La Aung said. “They only selectively target churches but will not touch Buddhist monasteries.”
Hanna Hindstrom, Asia information officer for international human rights organisation Minority Rights Group, said the report was “comprehensive”, and that it is up to the Burmese government to ensure that religious freedom and rights are respected.
“We’ve seen repeatedly that the law of the courts have kept targeting certain communities or minorities unfairly, notably in the wake of the Rakhine [Arakan] violence, but also after other violence affecting non-Rohingya Muslims in Burma,” Hindstrom told DVB by phone.
“969 pretty much operates without [the government] doing anything about it,” she added. “There are laws they can use to rein them in but they choose not to. There is a discrepancy that shows the government is not willing or able to tackle this problem.”
This year’s report, which is intended to inform congressional foreign policy decisions, renewed Burma’s designation as a “Country of Particular Concern”, on account of “engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Burma has been recognised by the US State Department as a country of concern since 1999.