Burma: 2016 International Religious Freedom Report

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. Discrimination, harassment and violence against the Rohingya Muslim group continued. In particular, in response to deadly attacks against security forces in October and November in northern Rakhine State, security forces undertook action about which there were numerous allegations of abuses, including extrajudicial killings, rapes, beatings, mass arrests, and destruction of buildings. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Approximately 70,000 people reportedly fled to Bangladesh as a result of the conflict, and approximately 23,000 were displaced internally. The government denounced the Buddhist Committee for Protection of Race and Religion (MaBaTha) for its propagation of hate speech and the State Sangha Monk Coordination Committee (SSMNC) said no previous Sangha convention endorsed MaBaTha, reportedly effectively delegitimizing the organization. Local administrators shut down a mosque in June in Kachin State following complaints from villagers about construction at the mosque, and a crowd subsequently burned the mosque to the ground. In June disputes over the legality of a mosque construction in Bago Division led a mob to attack and injure the leader of the mosque, destroying his home and the mosque itself. Police did not arrest anyone following the attack, saying any arrests would only worsen local tensions and that the size of the mob prevented them from intervening. The government reportedly imposed restrictions on the religious practice of minority populations, including Muslims, Christians, and others, including years-long delays in building permits for houses of worship, restricted access to social services, and various forms of discrimination, including in employment. The government continued its citizenship verification program in Rakhine State, which NGOs reported had been rejected by parts of the Rohingya Muslim community because of mistrust of the government, to identify individuals eligible for citizenship and issue identity documents. NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases moved quickly to investigate and debunk rumors that could inflame religious tensions and spark violence.

MaBaTha’s influence reportedly waned significantly following the government’s public denunciation of the group in July, although members of the organization continued circulating anti-Muslim materials in some villages and continued fanning religious tensions using social media. There were mass protests in Rakhine State and Rangoon in July opposing the government’s use of the term “Muslim community in Rakhine State” to refer to Rohingya, instead calling for the use of the pejorative term “Bengali.” The latter denotes what the protesters believed is the Rohingya’s status as undocumented immigrants as well as their cultural and ethnic roots in Bangladesh. Followers of a Buddhist monk in Karen State constructed a Buddhist structure and planted a Buddhist flag inside an Anglican church, and constructed a pagoda near a mosque in the Muslim-majority village of Hlaingbwe in April. Buddhists also reportedly prevented Muslim residents from buying or renting land or conducting business and threatened madrassah leaders to stop teaching. Religious and civil society leaders increasingly organized intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

The U.S. government, including the Secretary of State, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, and the Ambassador, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about the violence in Bago Division and Kachin State, conditions in Rakhine State, including those facing Muslim communities and ethnic Rakhine, and the rise of anti-Muslim hate speech and tension. The embassy regularly highlighted concerns about religious-based tension and anti-Muslim discrimination and called for respect for religious diversity and tolerance. The embassy advocated for religious freedom and tolerance with all sectors of society.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On October 31, 2016, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Download full report on Burma HERE.

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