The Irrawaddy

Human Rights Watch Defends Muslims Praying in Public

Security forces in front of a madrassa in Thaketa Township after nationalists sealed off the religious school. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

RANGOON — Human Rights Watch on Monday called for the Burma government to overrule local officials in Rangoon who are threatening to charge Muslims for holding Ramadan prayers in a public space.

On May 31, about 50 Muslims worshipped near a shuttered Islamic school in Thaketa Township, one of two madrassas in the area that were shut down by a ultranationalist mob on April 28. It is unclear when they will reopen.

In a statement on June 1, township authorities warned Muslims from the group they would take action under Article 133 of Burma’s Penal Code for praying in public without official permission, as it said the prayers blocked the road and threatened “stability and the rule of law.”

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s Asia Division, said: “ward-level officials’ threats to charge and prosecute Muslims” who took part in the prayer session on May 31 was “further evidence of the Myanmar government’s failure to protect religious freedoms.”

“Since that day, local police and ward officials in Yangon have been consistently harassing and threatening members of the Muslim community with criminal charges and fines because they dared assemble in the street to hold prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan,” he said.

“These actions by local officials are an outrage that should be urgently overruled by senior leaders in the General Administration Department, or failing that, the minister of home affairs. If the ministry refuses to act within days to cease these threats of charges, then as de facto head of government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should step in to protect freedom of conscience and religion,” he added.

Robertson said mosques and madrassas that have been forcibly shuttered should be “immediately re-opened.”

“Religious believers should not be threatened or criminally charged simply for exercising their fundamental right to observe and practice their religion,” he said.

Local Muslims told The Irrawaddy that they do not have enough places to pray. Township authorities were unavailable for comment on Monday.