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Burma: Religious Freedom and Related Human Rights Violations are Hindering Broader Reforms

By U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom  •  November 10, 2014

USCIRFExecutive Summary

The dramatic political developments in Burma in recent years are of historical and geopolitical significance. Bur-ma has progressed much further than most might have imagined possible only a few short years ago. Despite these achievements, Burma still has a long journey along the road to democracy and respect for human rights. Serious violations of religious freedom and human rights continue, accompanied by disturbing evidence of prejudice and intolerance, trends that will inevitably and dramatically impact the prospects for a brighter future. In short, the political reform process in Burma is at great risk of deteriorating if religious freedom and the right to equal treatment under the law are not honored and protected.

USCIRF is concerned that recent openings have coincided with serious and alarming violence against religious and ethnic minorities. Attacks against Muslims, particularly Rohingya Muslims, as well as against Christians, continue with impunity. Burma’s government, both at the central and state levels, has been unable or unwilling to address the abuses. The Commission is concerned by the situation for internally displaced persons in ethnic minority areas, particularly the approximately 140,000 mostly Rohingya Muslims displaced in Rakhine State and the more than 100,000 predominantly Christian Kachin displaced in Kachin State since 2011. Constitutional protections for religious freedoms in Burma are not sufficient to protect non-Buddhists from discrimination, violence, or targeted crimes. And rather than reforming current laws, the government has facilitated the development of legislation that would further impinge on religious freedoms.

Four key issues emerged during USCIRF’s trip and inform the report that follows. First, the Commission ad-dresses the appalling situation facing the Rohingya Muslim community. Due to the issues related to their deprivation of citizenship, the circumstances surrounding the Rohingya Muslim community in Burma are unique. Nonetheless, the abuses to which they are subjected are in some measure part of a broader pattern of prejudice against Muslims elsewhere in the country. The Rohingya Muslim community, whose population is estimated at approximately 1.3 million nationwide, is often subjected to discrimination that fuels religious and ethnic divisions. Thus, the second section of the report deals with broader issues of discrimination. In particular, and despite meeting with moderate Buddhist monks working to prevent and quell violence, the Commission was struck by the bigotry and chauvinism exhibited by important religious figures within the Buddhist community, with hostility often directed at all non-Buddhists, but especially at Muslims. The third section of the report deals with proposed legislation that, if enacted, would exacerbate these problems. To be sure, discrimination against non-Buddhists through law, regulation and practice is already pervasive, but proposed legislation to restrict religious conversion, marriage, and births would further entrench that discrimination. Finally, in the fourth section of the report, the Commission considers the issues of citizenship for Rohingya Muslims and identification documents for all Muslims, and policies that reflect the denial of the rights of members of these communities.

Given the seriousness of these issues, the visit not only confirmed USCIRF’s concerns about the religious freedom violations against religious and ethnic minorities and the ongoing discrimination against Rohingya Muslims, but also underlined the appropriateness of Burma’s designation as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). For more than a decade, USCIRF has recommended that Burma be designated as a CPC for its systematic, egregious and ongoing religious freedom violations and recommended actions the U.S. government could take to encourage reform and respect for human rights. The U.S. Department of State has designated Burma as a CPC repeatedly since 1999, most recently in July 2014. The corresponding Presidential Action is the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of IRFA.

Download the full report here.

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This post is in: Human Rights, Spotlight

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