Religious Freedom in Burma Among the Worst in the World: US Report

By Paul Vrieze 2 May 2013

RANGOON—A US government commission has recommended that Burma remains on a State Department blacklist of 15 governments in the world that are responsible for “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of freedom of religion.”

Christian ethnic groups, Muslim minorities and some Buddhist monks continue to suffer from violence, persecution and discrimination for their beliefs at the hands of Burma’s government, said the commission.

It also questioned the official government death toll of 192 killed during sectarian violence in Arakan State and said that the real figure was more than five times higher.

“Ongoing and important political reforms in Burma have yet to significantly improve the situation for freedom of religion and belief,” the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms, a bi-partisan advisory board appointed by the US President and Congress, said in its annual report released on Wednesday.

The commission advised that Buddhist-majority Burma remains listed as one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, placing it in a list of 15 “countries of particular concern” that includes China, Vietnam, Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan, North Korea, Sudan and Saudi Arabia.

The US government “should maintain targeted sanctions, and potentially re-impose lifted sanctions” against Burma’s government until it meets international bench marks for religious freedom, the commission said.

“[M]ost religious freedom violations occurred against ethnic minority Christian and Muslim communities, with serious abuses against mainly Christian civilians during military interventions in Kachin State and sectarian violence by societal actors targeting Muslims in [Arakan] State,” the commission said.

“In addition, Buddhist monks suspected of anti-government activities were detained or removed from their pagodas, and at least eight monks remain imprisoned for participating in peaceful demonstrations,” it said.

The commission expressed particular concern for the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya, a minority of around 800,000 people living in northern Arakan State, which has suffered greatly during mob attacks by local Buddhist Arakanese communities last year. More than 100,000 have been displaced by the violence and are now being confined to camps with dire conditions.

“Rohingya Muslims, who are denied Burmese citizenship, experience widespread discrimination, strict controls over their religious activities and ceremonies and societal violence that is often incited by Buddhist monks and carried out with impunity by mobs and local militias, including police,” according to the commission.

“[O]ver 1,000 Rohingya have been killed, their villages and religious structures destroyed, and women raped during attacks,” it said. The government’s official death toll, which includes both Buddhist and Rohingya victims, is 192. Some non-governmental groups familiar with the situation on the ground in Arakan State have previously also suggested that the real figure is several times higher.

On Monday, a Burmese government commission investigating the Arakan violence recommended increasing government security in the area, upholding the controversial 1982 Citizenship Law and curbing supposed “high population growth” among Rohingyas. International rights groups and the UN rights rapporteur on Burma said the report failed to investigate those responsible for the violence and to address the Rohingyas’ citizenship rights.

The US commission said that Burma’s “military reportedly continues to limit religious worship and forcibly promote Buddhism as a means of pacification … and targets Christians for forced labor, rape, intimidation, and destruction of religious sites.”

It said that during the fighting between the government and Christian Kachin rebels in northern Burma, “military units have bombed and seized control of Christian churches. As many as 60 Protestant churches were damaged by indiscriminate shelling.”