The United States is “encouraged” by the efforts of the Burmese government to address religious persecution in Arakan State, a senior official said on Friday, though the country remains on a shortlist of the world’s most repressive toward minority faiths.
Speaking to reporters via phone from Washington, US ambassador at large for international religious freedom David Saperstein took something of a wait-and-see stance toward Burma’s newly elected government, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
“We’re very encouraged by the overall commitment of this government for expanding democracy and human rights,” Saperstein said, “but in [Arakan State] there is a long way to go; there is terrible human suffering and we’re glad to see the beginning of an approach on that.”
Arakan State is home to nearly one million stateless Rohingya Muslims, many of whom have been confined to squalid displacement camps since deadly riots swept the state beginning in 2012. Saperstein commended the new government’s initial attempts at citizenship verification, a process that began earlier this year.
“We hope it will be robust and expanded in its application, but that is an encouraging sign,” he said.
Other observers have been less impressed by the government’s efforts to extend citizenship to the Rohingya through the verification process.
On her latest visit to Burma in June, UN human rights rapporteur Yanghee Lee remarked that the “response to this latest initiative has been lukewarm at best”, noting that it lacked transparency and that some newly reinstated citizens were still deprived of basic rights.
David Mathieson, the senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, was even more critical. The process was, he said, “rooted in a racist citizenship law and hobbled by a weak and likely bigoted bureaucracy, for the obvious intent of denying as many Rohingya as possible the basic freedoms they have long been denied.”
Calling the government’s obsession with citizenship as a precondition for recognising basis rights “one of the central currents of religious tensions in Burma”, Mathieson said the United States and other countries supporting Burma’s transition to democracy should urge the country to scrap its controversial 1982 Citizenship Law “and pursue a process that genuinely guarantees rights for all the communities in [Arakan State].
The State Department on Thursday released its annual report on international religious freedom, highlighting global and country-specific concerns focused heavily on non-state actors and repressive blasphemy and apostasy laws.
The report criticized Burma’s recent passage of four “race and religion protection laws”, which were proposed by a rogue Buddhist association known as Ma Ba Tha and enacted by the military-backed government of former President Thein Sein.
The legislation, which imposes restrictions on interfaith marriage, religious conversion and birthrates, remains on the books under the new government but has not been widely enforced.
“We have expressed great concern that those laws would be applied in a way that would be harmful to… the Muslim community, the Catholic community and others, and we really hope that those laws will be reconsidered,” Saperstein said.
Majority-Buddhist Burma is one of only 10 nations in the world that remains on the State Department’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, which Saperstein described as having “systemic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom”. Other countries on the list include China, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan.