Myanmar on US List of Worst Religious Freedom Violators

By Nan Lwin 12 December 2018

YANGON—U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called out Myanmar for severe violations of religious freedoms over its treatment of religious and ethnic communities in a statement on Tuesday.

Myanmar is among 10 nations designated “Countries of Particular Concern” under the U.S. International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 due to mass violence against the Rohingya population in northern Rakhine State and against other religious communities, as well as the persecution of ethnic Kachin and Karen during the ongoing civil war, according to the statement.

Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Samuel D. Brownback said during a teleconference that nine other countries—China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan—were also on the list of designated countries released by Pompeo on Nov. 28 under IRFA.

The list Pompeo released in December 2017 featured nine of the same countries, but included Uzbekistan rather than Pakistan.

Brownback said the 10 nations on this year’s list have “allowed or conducted severe, ongoing, egregious, systematic violations of religious freedom.”

“In far too many places across the globe, individuals continue to face harassment, arrest or even death for simply living their lives in accordance with their beliefs. The United States will not stand by as spectators in the face of such oppression,” Pompeo said in the statement.

The State Department notifies the U.S. Congress of the list annually, and in some cases imposes sanctions on the countries. Brownback said such sanctions are known as “double-hatted”, meaning the countries are sanctioned in other areas but are also considered sanctioned as Countries of Particular Concern.

During the teleconference, one reporter asked whether the U.S. administration would rule out legal action against Naypyitaw over the violence against the Rohingya. Brownback said he did not have details on what further action would be taken. He pointed out, however, that the administration had already taken a strong stance over the issue, with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary Pompeo and Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley all speaking out against Naypyitaw’s actions.

He said the U.S. had already sanctioned five Myanmar generals and two military units. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the military’s actions in Rakhine as ethnic cleansing, Brownback noted, adding that Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya and other religious communities continues to be closely watched and a “very keen area of interest”.

“The Kachin and Karen are also ones that are being persecuted in [Myanmar], and all those together are reasons we obviously put [it] as a Country of Particular Concern on the list,” he added.

According to a recent report in the Christian Post citing U.S. pastor and interfaith dialog advocate Bob Roberts, the Myanmar military has bombed or burned at least 60 churches in the past 18 months in Kachin State during clashes with the Kachin Independence Army.

Myanmar is also among the violators of religious freedom listed in the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)’s 2018 report.

On Dec. 3, USCIRF called on the U.S. government and the international community to hold accountable members of Myanmar’s military, security forces and some non-state actors for severe human rights and religious freedom violations against Rohingya Muslims and other religious and ethnic communities including Buddhists, Hindus and Christians, as well as ethnic Kachin, Shan and Karen.

At home, top leaders recently warned Union Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Thura U Aung Ko to choose his words carefully when referring to Rohingya refugees taking shelter in Bangladesh.

While addressing the funeral of a respected ethnic Karen Buddhist monk in Karen State’s Hpa-an in November, the minister told monks in attendance that Buddhism in Myanmar was in danger from the followers of an unspecified “extreme” faith.

Numerous organizations in the county raised objections to his statement, which they took as a reference to Islam. At an education seminar in Naypyitaw on Dec. 4, the minister clarified his remarks, saying they did not refer to all Muslims but only to “Bengalis.” Myanmar government officials often use the term “Bengali” to refer to Rohingya, whom they do not consider an indigenous ethnic group, but rather as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.