US Expresses Concern for Minorities in Burma

By Lalit K Jha 31 July 2012

WASHINGTON DC—On the day when the United States and Naypyidaw restored full diplomatic ties, an official report said that respect for religious freedom remains problematic in Burma despite recent reforms undertaken by the new quasi-civilian government.

As a result, the Burmese government not only continues to restrict the efforts of some Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, it also monitors the activities of Muslims closely. Restrictions on worship for other non-Buddhist minority groups also continue, the US State Department said in its annual survey of international religious freedom published on Monday.

The report was released on the same day as new Burmese Ambassador to the US Than Swe presented his credentials to President Barack Obama. The ceremony, held at the White House along with dozen or so other new ambassadors, was closed to the press.

Than Swe, formerly Burma’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, is the first diplomat to assume the post since 2004 when Lynn Myaing was the 17th Burmese Ambassador to the US. From that time until now the Burmese government instead appointed a Charge d’Affairs.

The ongoing sectarian violence in Burma was brought up by Susan D. Johnson Cook, ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, when she briefed the media on the latest congressionally-mandated report.

“In Burma, long-simmering tensions recently erupted in widespread violence against the marginalized Rohingya community,” she said. “And in other countries, governments misuse laws to restrict freedom of religion, expression and assembly.”

In her address to the prestigious Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think-tank also on Monday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said several countries with diverse faith communities are now in the process of navigating transitions toward democracy.

“They are wrestling with questions of whether and how to protect religious freedom for their citizens,” she said. “This goes from Tunisia to Burma and many places in between.”

The Burma section of the State Department report points to religious restrictions on Muslims in the country. Followers of Islam, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, were often required to obtain permission from local authorities to leave their home towns.

“Authorities often denied Rohingya and other Muslims living in Rakhine [Arakan] State permission to travel for any purpose; however, permission was sometimes obtained through bribery,” said the report.

“Muslims in other regions were granted more freedom to travel, but still faced restrictions. For example, Rohingyas living in Rangoon needed permission from immigration authorities to travel into and out of Rakhine State.

“Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational and social discrimination. There were reports that Buddhist physicians would not provide Muslims the endorsement required by the Ministry of Health that permits Muslims to travel outside Rakhine State to seek advanced medical treatment,” the State Department said.

According to the report, the Burmese government denied citizenship status to Rohingyas by claiming that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as the 1982 Citizenship Law enacted by dictator Ne Win requires.

The report said without citizenship status Rohingyas did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Those Muslim students from Arakan State who completed high school were not permitted to travel outside the state to attend college or university, it said, adding that authorities continued to bar Muslim university students who did not possess national registration cards from graduating.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern under the US International Religious Freedom Act.