The US State Department just released its 2011 report on international religious freedom. Although religious freedom in Burma does not directly impact the work of Burma Humanitarian Mission — our humanitarian work operates independently of any religious or spiritual affiliation — the religious freedom (or lack thereof) in Burma is important for us to pay attention to because the government of Burma does restrict religious practices as part of their overall repression of the people of Burma and the ethnic minorities in particular.
One of the things I love so much about Burma and what drew me to want to work there is that Burma is a religiously diverse country. In Karen State, where BHM largely operates, there are villages with Buddhists, Christians and Muslims alike — and the people of these different religions all seemed to me to respect and tolerate one another.
I am concerned that the government’s attacks on Muslims in the west of the country are subverting the tolerance between people as a means to disempower the ethnic minorities (if Muslims are angry at Buddhists, they’re not necessarily going to work well together). This increase in violence could be used to pit the ethnic minorities against one another that could spiral toward even more violence, and undermine what little hope there is in Burma for freedom and self-determination for the ethnic minorities.
Here are some highlights from the US State Department International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 on Burma.
The entire report can be read here: http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm?dlid=192615#wrapper
“Religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The government continued to monitor the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public event.
“The government continued to restrict the efforts of some Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom. While some of the Buddhist monks arrested in the violent crackdown that followed prodemocracy demonstrations in September 2007 were released during the year, many remained in prison serving long sentences. The government also actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities.
“The constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom. The government, formed in March, is headed by President Thein Sein and includes a bicameral parliament; the military-run State Peace and Development Council was dissolved during the year although former and active military officers continued to wield authority at each level of government. In November 2010, the then-military regime held the country’s first parliamentary elections since 1990, which were neither free nor fair. The government’s main party, the ruling USDP, claimed an overwhelming majority of seats in the national parliament and state/regional assemblies. While the parliament is dominated by ethnic Burman Buddhists, virtually all recognized religions and ethnic groups have at least some representation, collectively holding approximately 16 percent of the seats.
“There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including the continued detention and incarceration of Buddhist monks throughout the country, the arrest of Muslims in the broader Rangoon area for unauthorized teaching as well as praying in living quarters, and the interrogation and harassment of Baptists in Kachin 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.
“There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Because ethnicity and religion are often inextricably linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents specifically as ethnic or religious intolerance. Preferential treatment for Buddhists and widespread prejudice against ethnic South Asians, particularly ethnic Rohingya Muslims, were key sources of social tensions between the Buddhist majority and Christian and Muslim minorities. There were reports of a deadly attack on a Rohingya residence on December 26 by Rakhine extremists in Buthidaung Township in Rakhine State and an ensuing riot.”