Myan­mar still lack­ing in re­li­gious tol­er­ance

A re­port by the US Com­mit­tee on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom still sees cause for “grave con­cern” in the coun­try’s re­li­gious rights record.

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - LIL­LIAN KALISH news­room@mm­times.com

IN its first re­port since the Na­tional League for Democ­racy took power pledg­ing move­ment to­ward greater re­li­gious equal­ity, the United States Com­mit­tee on In­ter­na­tional Re­li­gious Free­dom still sees cause for “grave con­cern” in the coun­try’s rights record.

The com­mit­tee’s re­port, a com­pre­hen­sive as­sess­ment that tracks re­stric­tions on re­li­gious free­dom and pro­vides rec­om­men­da­tions to the US govern­ment for pro­tect­ing hu­man rights around the world, came out on Au­gust 10.

Since the com­mit­tee’s in­cep­tion in 1998, Myan­mar has re­mained a Tier 1 “coun­try of par­tic­u­lar con­cern”. The four “race and re­li­gion” laws passed un­der then-pres­i­dent U Thein Sein’s rule, and mil­i­tary ten­sions with eth­nic dis­si­dent groups in up­per Myan­mar, con­tinue to re­strict the rights and free­doms of Ro­hingya Mus­lims in Rakhine State and Chris­tians in Kachin and Shan states re­spec­tively, the re­port said.

In­tro­duc­ing the re­port, David Saper­stein, US am­bas­sador-at-large, said the com­mit­tee “ex­pressed grave con­cern that large num­bers of them [Ro­hingyas] have had cit­i­zen­ship stripped from them … Of­ten they are in camps where they can’t re­turn to their home com­mu­ni­ties, they can’t es­tab­lish mosques.”

Po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst U Than Soe Naing noted that the re­port, with its rec­om­men­da­tions – rang­ing from con­crete ac­tions such as us­ing the term “Ro­hingya” to de­scribe the Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion in Rakhine and deny­ing visas to Myan­mar of­fi­cials di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for vi­o­lat­ing re­li­gious free­dom to vaguer calls for in­ter­faith engagement – serves as a les­son for the NLD.

“I think the NLD can es­tab­lish re­li­gious equal­ity, but I worry that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party will be at­tacked by Bud­dhist na­tion­al­ists for try­ing to make th­ese changes,” he said.

The re­port, which cov­ers the year 2015, was re­leased only a few days af­ter the most re­cent in­stances of re­li­gious op­pres­sion in the coun­try.

On Au­gust 8 in Thin­gangyun town­ship, Yan­gon Re­gion, 16 peo­ple, in­clud­ing Mus­lim stu­dents study­ing the Ko­ran, were de­tained un­der the “mid­night in­spec­tions” law. In June, a mob of 500 Bud­dhist ex­trem­ists burned down a mosque in Bago Re­gion.

A re­cent ar­ti­cle in The Myan­mar Times sug­gested that anti-Mus­lim hate speech, as well as Bud­dhist na­tional sen­ti­ment, was on the rise in the coun­try’s nascent so­cial me­dia. How­ever, U Aye Lwin, a Mus­lim leader from the Is­lamic Cen­tre of Myan­mar, says th­ese in­stances are not un­com­mon. For Mus­lims and fol­low­ers of non-Bud­dhist faiths, free­dom is still a far­away goal.

“I don’t want to blame the sit­u­a­tion on the NLD govern­ment, but call­ing for re­li­gious equal­ity will be a dif­fi­cult chal­lenge,” he said.

Al­though Myan­mar has lan­guished as a “coun­try of par­tic­u­lar con­cern” for 17 con­sec­u­tive years, Mr Saper­stein said he was very en­cour­aged by the NLD’s com­mit­ment to ad­vanc­ing democ­racy and hu­man rights.

In 2015, Ro­hingya Mus­lims were tem­po­rar­ily able to claim cit­i­zen­ship with ID doc­u­ments known as “white cards”. How­ever, heed­ing the anger of Bud­dhist of­fi­cials, the pre­vi­ous govern­ment dis­con­tin­ued this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion process.

New chal­lenges to re­li­gious equal­ity in Myan­mar have de­fined 2016.

The coun­try was un­der the in­ter­na­tional spot­light as Ro­hingya refugees crossed the sea to en­ter Thai­land and Malaysia to seek asy­lum from re­pres­sive con­di­tions. The new govern­ment faces pres­sure both to mend eth­nic ten­sions and to en­sure a broader demo­cratic process.

“In Rakhine, there’s a long way to go,” said Mr Saper­stein. “There’s ter­ri­ble hu­man suf­fer­ing and we be­lieve that it has to be made a key pri­or­ity to fun­da­men­tally change things.”

Photo: Naing Wynn Htoon

Po­lice stand guard in Thaye Thamain vil­lage, Bago Re­gion, on June 30, one week af­ter a mob of more than 200 peo­ple as­saulted a Mus­lim man, ran­sacked his home and de­stroyed a Mus­lim ceme­tery.

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