Last Updated: Thursday, 18 December 2014, 14:40 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Burma

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2005
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2005 - Burma, 1 May 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/485569762.html [accessed 18 December 2014]
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.

Serious human rights abuses perpetuated by Burma's military regime continue to be widespread, including systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom. According to the State Department's 2004 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, the Burmese government's extremely poor human rights record deteriorated even further in the past year. Since its inception, the Commission has recommended that Burma be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC. The State Department has followed this recommendation and consistently named Burma a CPC.

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 conversion to Buddhism from other religions.

The SPDC is locked in a decades-long conflict with the pro-democracy opposition in the cities and armed ethnic minorities in the countryside. There have been some attempts to reach peace accords with armed militias in the last year. However, the military junta remains 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 often 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 have 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.

The Burmese military has instigated violence by the Buddhist majority against Muslims. Tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities resulted in outbreaks of violence over the past several years. During one such outbreak in Irrawaddy Division in 2003, Buddhists attacked shops, restaurants, and homes owned by Muslims. Police and soldiers reportedly stood by and did not halt the violence against Muslims until the latter began to fight back. Muslim groups claimed that seven people were killed and two mosques were destroyed in violence near Mandalay in that same year.

Among the Chin and Naga ethnic minorities, there are credible reports that government and military authorities actively sought ways to convert Christians to Buddhism. The State Department's 2004 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom reports that under the guise of offering free education, local officials have 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 financial and career incentives to ethnic Burman Buddhist soldiers to marry Chin Christian women. Among Naga Christians, refugees leaving Burma report that members of the army, together with Buddhist monks, closed churches in local villages and attempted to force adherents to convert to Buddhism.

Christian and Muslim groups continue regularly to experience difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches and mosques, as well as to hold public ceremonies and festivals and import religious literature. Authorities have reportedly denied permission for the construction of new churches since 1997 in certain parts of Chin state. Similar restrictions are reportedly imposed in the capital of Kachin state and among Protestants in Karen state. In Rangoon during 2001-2002, authorities closed more than 80 Protestant house churches because they did not have proper authorizations to hold religious meetings. Few of these churches have since been reopened, and, according to the Department of State, other closures continued in the last year. Similarly, Muslims reported difficulties in constructing new mosques or re-building those previously destroyed. In 2002, authorities in Rakhine state destroyed 13 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 government of Burma seriously discriminates against members of minority religious groups in education, publishing, building permits, and access to public sector services and jobs. In public schools nationwide, all students are required to recite a daily Buddhist prayer. While some Muslim students are permitted to leave the room during this time, some schools require non-Buddhist students to recite the prayer.

In most cases the government has denied citizenship to Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in the country prior to British colonial rule. Due to this denial of legal status, the Rohingya face strict restrictions on their freedom of movement, and in some areas are not permitted to own property or reside in certain townships. Government provisions reserving access to secondary education only to citizens of Burma deny Rohingya Muslims access to state-run schools beyond the primary level and prohibit them from obtaining most positions in the civil service.

The SPDC shows public preference for Theravada Buddhism; however, even the majority Buddhist religion is not immune from government repression. According to the State Department's 2004 human rights report, members of the Buddhist "sangha" are subject to a strict code of conduct that is reportedly enforced by criminal penalties. Since 1990, all Buddhist monks have been required to affiliate with one of nine state-recognized monastic orders, all of which remain under the authority of the State Monk Coordination Committee. Military commanders retain jurisdiction to try Buddhist monks in military court for "activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism." In February 2004, the government handed down jail terms ranging from seven to 16 years for 26 monks who were defrocked and arrested in December 2003 for refusing to accept government donations of robes and other items.

The government also prohibits all monks from being members of a political party. Since 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 pro-democracy forces. Many members of the Buddhist clergy remain imprisoned; 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 democracy activist and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under "protective custody."

In March 2005, Senator Gordon Smith introduced S. Res. 91, a resolution to urge the European Union (EU) to maintain its arms embargo on China. The resolution cited Commission findings on the role of the Burmese military in perpetuating religious and ethnic conflict in that country, in which China has played a role as a key supplier of weapons materials. The resolution also recommended greater cooperation between the EU and the United States to bring "a permanent and verifiable end to the ongoing proliferation by state and non-state owned entities and individuals of the People's Republic of China of munitions materials, and military equipment and trade in such items involving countries, such as Burma and Sudan, whose armies have played a role in the perpetration of violations of human rights and of humanitarian law against members of ethnic and religious minorities."

In 2004, Commission staff met with exiled Burmese ethnic and religious leaders, including Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims, and with members of congressional and international delegations that visited Burma.

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