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Statement on USCIRF Visit to Burma

By United States Commission on International Religious Freedom  •  August 23, 2014

Statement of Commissioners M. Zuhdi Jasser and Eric P. Schwartz upon completing a five-day visit to Burma.

This is our first Commissioner-level visit to the country.  We have had meetings with Union and state government officials, Rangoon-based representatives of ethnic and religious groups, representatives of non-governmental organizations, representatives of political parties, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and religious leaders.  We traveled to Rangoon, Mandalay, Meiktila, and Naypyidaw.  In Meiktila, we welcomed the chance to visit camps for persons from both the Muslim and Buddhist communities who were displaced by spasms of violence in March 2013.

We visited Burma to promote tolerance and inclusion in light of violations of religious freedom and violence and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities.  After our return, we expect to issue a report of our findings.  Our comments today represent preliminary observations.

We were deeply impressed by the conviction of so many Burmese about the importance of religious freedom and human rights and by their recognition that equal treatment, in law and in practice, for all of Burma’s ethnic and religious communities is critical to the process of reform.  We also met with officials who echoed President Thein Sein’s stated goal of “securing equal rights for each and every citizen.”

The Commission has followed this country for more than a decade, expressing concern about limitations on religious freedom for everyone – Buddhists and non-Buddhists.  And we have very much welcomed the release of prisoners of conscience, easing of restrictions on freedom of expression and other encouraging developments in recent years.  Nonetheless, this visit has confirmed our concerns about serious and substantial discrimination against minority religious faiths, imposed by law, regulation and practice.  As a result, members of these faiths have unequal personal status, reflected, for example, in their identification documents and rights associated with citizenship.  Other restrictions prevent the construction of religious institutions and impose obstacles to the practice of faith by Christians; we are also concerned by the failure to adequately hold accountable perpetrators of violence against religious minorities.

We are deeply troubled by reports we received of abuses against the Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine State.  No impartial observers question reports of systematic, large-scale and egregious abuses of human rights of this community involving acts and omissions resulting in deaths, injuries, displacement, denial of basic health and other services, denial of freedom of movement, and denial of the right to a nationality, among other violations.  While Rakhine State is among the poorest states in Burma and all its communities merit attention and concern, government action is urgently needed to address the horrible circumstances confronting the Rohingya.

We are disappointed that the overall political reform effort has yet to address seriously these concerns.  At a time when we’d hope to see reform that addresses these issues, we are also concerned by actions that are in contrast to a reform commitment, such as the draft anti-conversion law and other race and religion bills.

Finally, we encourage the efforts of the United States and other governments to accelerate the process of reform in Burma.  Governments should communicate solidarity with activists who have worked so diligently, and often at great personal sacrifice, to promote respect for human rights, tolerance and religious freedom.  Governments should seize opportunities to signal ongoing support for human rights and religious freedom – the rights of those, like Rohingya Muslims, who are the victims of the most serious of abuses.

Media Contact:
USCIRF Commissioner at media@uscirf.gov or 202-786-0613

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This post is in: Press Release

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