Chittagong, Bangladesh: Burma is of “particular concern,” as the country’s authoritarian regime imposed restrictions on religious activities of minorities, including Muslims and Christians, said United States Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton during an announcement of the release of a new report on religious freedom and human rights on November 17.
“With this report, we hope to give governments, NGOs and citizens around the world valuable information about the status of religious freedom and a call to action for all of us to work together more effectively to protect it,” she said.
“Such fundamental information would be used in a variety of ways in the coming diplomatic year.”
“With this report, we do not intend to act as a judge of other countries or hold ourselves out as a perfect example, but the United States cares about religious freedom. We have worked hard to enforce religious freedom. We want to see religious freedom available universally. And we want to advocate for the brave men and women who around the world persist in practicing their beliefs in the face of hostility and violence. This report reflects a broad understanding of religious freedom, one that begins with private beliefs and communal religious expression, but doesn’t end there. Religious freedom also includes the right to raise one’s children in one’s faith, to share one’s faith peacefully with others, to publish religious materials without censorship, to change one’s religion – by choice, not coercion, and to practice no religion at all. And it includes the rights of faith communities to come together in social service and public engagement in the broader society," she added.
According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2010, the United States indicates that eight very different countries comprise the central list of those demonstrating minimal commitment to religious freedom and human rights: Burma, China, Eritrea, North Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.
The military junta has imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and limited freedom of religion, although generally permitted adherents of government-registered religious groups to worship as they chose, the report said.
“The government continued to systematically restrict Buddhist clergy efforts to promote human rights and political freedom. Many of the Buddhist monks arrested in the violent crackdown that followed pro-democracy demonstrations in September 2007, including prominent activist monk U Gambira, remained in prison serving long sentences,” the report stated.
Religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The government continued to monitor 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.
“Christian and Islamic groups continued to struggle to obtain permission to repair places of worship or build new ones.”
During the reporting period, social tensions continued between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities. Widespread prejudice existed against citizens of South Asian origin, many of whom are Muslims. The government continued to refuse to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on their movement and marriage, according to the report.
According to Burmese official statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 percent Christianity, and 4 percent Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimating the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Independent researchers have placed the Muslim population at between 6 and 10 percent.
Islam is practiced widely in Rakhine State and in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Magwe, and Mandalay Divisions,
Most adherents of government-recognized religious groups generally were allowed to worship as they chose; however, the government imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently limited religious freedom. Anti-discrimination laws do not apply to ethnic groups not formally recognized under the 1982 Citizenship Law, such as the Muslim Rohingyas in northern Rakhine State.
On other hand, Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey introduced a resolution on September 30 in the US House of Representatives urging the lifting of restrictions of movement, marriage and access to education imposed on the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority, by the military regime in Myanmar.
Burmese law bars members of religious orders from running for public office. Laws published in March 2010 in preparation for November 7 elections also barred members from Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu religious orders (such as priests, monks, and nuns) from voting and joining political parties, as did laws for past elections. The new laws do not mention Muslims.
In December 2009 six Muslims were arrested for distributing an Islamic newsletter without approval.
Citizens and permanent residents were required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs) that often indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. There appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person's religion was indicated on the card.
Citizens also were required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer's religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities faced problems obtaining NRCs, Muslims even more than others.
Authorities frequently refused to approve requests for gatherings to celebrate traditional Christian and Islamic holidays and restricted the number of Muslims who could gather in one place. For instance, in satellite towns surrounding Rangoon, Muslims were only allowed to gather for worship and religious training during major Muslim holidays. During the reporting period, mosques in Mandalay and Rangoon were restricted from using a loudspeaker for the Azan (call to prayer). The government-cited reason for this restriction was that it would upset Buddhist monks.
Government censors continued to enforce restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Qur'an, and other Christian and Islamic texts. The most onerous restriction was a list of more than 100 prohibited words the censors would not allow in Christian or Islamic literature, forbidden as "indigenous terms" or derived from the Pali language long used in Buddhist literature.
Some Christian and Islamic groups in the country have used these words since the colonial period. Some Muslim organizations, which translated and published non-Buddhist religious texts, appealed the restrictions although government authorities have not responded to the appeals.
In addition censors sometimes objected to passages of the Bible's Old Testament and the Qur'an that they interpreted as endorsing violence against nonbelievers.
Authorities restricted the quantity of imported Bibles and Qur'ans, although individuals continued to bring them into the country in small quantities for personal use.
Muslims across the country, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, often were required to obtain permission from township authorities to leave their hometowns. Authorities generally did not grant permission to Rohingya or other Muslims living in Rakhine to travel for any purpose; however, permission was sometimes obtained through bribery.
Muslims residing outside Rakhine state often were barred from return travel to their homes if they visited parts of Rakhine state, but could not return to Rangoon without the signature of the Regional Military Commander.
Muslims in Rakhine state, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination. The government denied citizenship status to Rohingyas, claiming that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as the 1982 citizenship law required. The Rohingya asserted that their presence in the area predates the British arrival by several centuries.
In February 2010 the UN special rapporteur for human rights in the country visited and noted discrimination against Muslims. Many of the approximately 28,500 Rohingya Muslims registered in two refugee camps in Bangladesh and the estimated 200,000 Rohingya Muslims living outside those camps refused to return to the country because they feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution.
Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey urges the government of Myanmar’s neighbor Bangladesh on September 30 to address “the dire humanitarian conditions and food insecurity in the makeshift camps” for Rohingya refugees on the border and to stop forcing unregistered Rohingya back to Myanmar.
Although essentially treated as illegal foreigners, Rohingya were not issued Foreigner Registration Cards (FRCs). Since they also were not generally eligible for NRCs, Rohingya have been commonly referred to as "stateless." The government continued a program with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs) to stateless persons in northern Rakhine State, the majority of whom are Rohingyas.
Without citizenship status Rohingyas did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Those Muslim students from Rakhine state who completed high school were not permitted to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar from graduating Muslim university students who did not possess NRCs. These students were permitted to attend classes and sit for examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they claimed a "foreign" ethnic minority affiliation. Rohingyas also were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples must also obtain government permission to marry.
It remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to build new, or repair existing, mosques, although internal renovations were allowed in some cases. Historic mosques in Mawlamyine, Mon State and Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as other areas, continued to deteriorate because authorities would not allow routine maintenance.
A number of restrictions were in place on the construction or renovation of mosques and religious schools in northern Rakhine State. In some parts of Rakhine State, authorities cordoned off mosques and forbade Muslims to worship in them. Border security forces continued to conduct arbitrary "inspections" of mosques in northern Rakhine State, demanding that mosque officials show permits to operate the mosques.
“Let us pledge our constant support to all who struggle against religious oppression and rededicate ourselves to fostering peace with those whose beliefs differ from our own,” the US President Barack Obama said, according to the US state department website.
"My Administration will continue to oppose growing trends in many parts of the world to restrict religious expression. Faith can bring us closer to one another, and our freedom to practice our faith and follow our conscience is central to our ability to live in harmony," the US President said.