Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - Burma

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2004
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2004 - Burma, 1 May 2004, available at: [accessed 29 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human rights abuses perpetuated by Burma's military regime continue to be widespread, including severe violations of religious freedom. The Commission has recommended that Burma be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC, for the past four years. The State Department has followed the Commission's recommendation. In the last year, according to the State Department's 2003 human rights report, the Burmese government's "extremely poor human rights record worsened."

The military junta that governs Burma, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), uses a pervasive internal security apparatus to monitor the activities of all religious organizations. The government imposes restrictions on certain religious practices, controls and censors all religious publications, and, in some areas of the country, forcefully promotes Buddhism over other religions.

The SPDC is locked in decades long conflict with pro-democracy opposition in the cities and armed ethnic minorities in the countryside. It is faced with internal and external refugee problems, a flourishing drug trade, and the rampant spread of AIDS/HIV infection. The military junta is suspicious of all organized, independent religious activity, in part because some clergy and religious followers of Buddhism and other minority religions are politically active in opposition to the regime. This includes members of ethnic minorities, for whom religion is a defining feature.

Members of minority religious groups, especially Muslims and Christians, face serious abuses of religious freedom and other human rights by the military. In some localities, military commanders forcibly conscripted members of religious minorities as porters, killing some who have refused. Christians and Muslims have been forced to engage in the destruction of churches and graveyards for the purpose of clearing sites for military camps. They reportedly have also been forced to "donate" labor to build and maintain Buddhist pagodas and monasteries.

Among the Chin and Naga ethnic minorities, there are credible reports that government and military authorities actively sought ways to convert members from Christianity to Buddhism. The State Department's 2003 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom stated that under the guise of offering free education, local officials separated children from their parents, with the children instructed to convert to Buddhism without their parents' knowledge or consent. In Chin State, there are reports that government authorities offered troops financial and career incentives to marry Christian women. Among the Naga, refugees leaving Burma report that the army and Buddhist monks tried to force them to convert to Buddhism and closed churches in local villages.

Christian and Muslim groups are routinely denied permission to hold public ceremonies and festivals. The government has also prohibited the public expression of Christianity among ethnic minorities. In at least one instance last year, Christian clerics were beaten to discourage their religious expression and persuasion activities. In Rangoon during 2001-2002, authorities closed more than 80 Protestant home-churches because they did not have proper authorizations to hold religious meetings. In the last year, Protestant clergy from Karen and Chin States reported that the SPDC officials continued this practice.

The government of Burma severely discriminates against members of minority religious groups in education, publishing, building permits, and access to public sector services and jobs. Christian and Muslim groups continue to report difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches and mosques. These groups also have had difficulties importing religious literature since the 1960s.

In the last year, Muslims have also reported having difficulty constructing new mosques or re-building those previously destroyed. In 2002, authorities in Rakhine State destroyed thirteen mosques until international pressure forced them to stop further demolitions. Local authorities reportedly replaced the mosques with government owned buildings and Buddhist temples and have refused to issue the necessary permission for mosque construction on other sites.

The Burmese military has instigated violence by the Buddhist majority against Muslims. Tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities resulted in several outbreaks of violence over the past several years. Members of the Buddhist community attacked shops, restaurants, and homes owned by Muslims. During one outbreak, police and soldiers reportedly stood by and did not halt the violence against Muslims until they began to fight back. In the last year, Muslim groups claimed that seven persons were killed and two mosques were destroyed in the violence near Mandalay.

The SPDC shows public preference for Therevada Buddhism; however, even the majority Buddhist religion is not immune from government repression. According to the State Department's 2003 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, members of the Buddhist "sangha" are subject to a strict code of conduct that is reportedly enforced by criminal penalties. Military commanders can try Buddhist monks in military court for "activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism."

The government also prohibits all monks from being members of any political party. Throughout the 1990s, Buddhist monks have been active in the pro-democracy movement. The government imprisoned more than 100 Buddhist monks for advocating democracy and encouraging dialogue between the government and the pro-democracy forces. Many members of the Buddhist clergy remain in prison; though a precise number is unavailable, credible sources report that this number has risen since May 2003, when the Burmese government, after organizing an attack on her motorcade, placed Aung San Suu Kyi under "protective custody."

Until Aung San Suu Kyi is released, and the government enters into serious negotiations with the opposition, it is difficult to foresee major improvements in human rights, including religious freedom, in the near future.

In 2003, the Commission staff met with exiled Burmese religious and ethnic leaders, including Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, and with members of congressional and international delegations who visited Burma.

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