Released by the U.S. Department of State Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor on December 18, 2003, covers the period from July 1, 2002, to June 30, 2003.
Burma has been ruled since 1962 by highly repressive, authoritarian military regimes. Since 1988, when the armed forces brutally suppressed massive pro-democracy demonstrations, a junta composed of senior military officers has ruled by decree, without a constitution or legislature. The most recent constitution, promulgated in 1974, permits both legislative and administrative restrictions on religious freedom: "the national races shall enjoy the freedom to profess their religion, provided that the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest." Most adherents of religions that are registered with the authorities generally are allowed to worship as they choose; however, the Government has imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently abused the right to freedom of religion.
There was no change in the limited respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. Through its pervasive internal security apparatus, the Government generally infiltrated or monitored the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations. It systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, discouraged or prohibited minority religions from constructing new places of worship, and, in some ethnic minority areas, coercively promoted Buddhism over other religions, particularly among members of the minority ethnic groups. Christian groups continued to experience increasing difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches in most regions, while Muslims reported that they essentially are banned from constructing any new mosques, or expanding existing ones anywhere in the country. Anti-Muslim violence continued to occur. Restrictions on Muslim travel as well as monitoring of Muslims' activities and worship countrywide have increased in recent years.
There are social tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities, largely due to colonial and contemporary government preferences. There is widespread prejudice against Muslims.
Since 1988, a primary objective of U.S. Government policy toward the country has been to promote increased respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. In March, the Secretary of State designated Burma a "country of particular concern" (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Secretary of State also designated Burma a CPC in 1999, 2000, and 2001. During the period covered by this report, the U.S. Embassy promoted religious freedom during contacts with all facets of Burmese society, including officials, private citizens, scholars, representatives of other governments, international media representatives, and international business representatives, as well as leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of approximately 251,000 square miles and a population of approximately 50 million persons. The majority of the population is Theravada Buddhist, although in practice popular Burmese Buddhism includes veneration of many indigenous pre-Buddhist deities called "nats" and coexists with astrology, numerology, and fortune telling. Buddhist monks, including novices, number more than 300,000 persons, (roughly 2 percent of the male Buddhist population), and depend on the laity for their material needs, including clothing and daily donations of food. There is a much smaller number of Buddhist nuns. There are Christian minorities (mostly Baptists as well as some Catholics and Anglicans), Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to official statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 percent practices Christianity, and 4 percent practices Islam; however, these statistics may underestimate the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. There is a small Jewish community in Rangoon, and while there is a synagogue, during the period covered by this report there was neither a congregation nor a rabbi to conduct services.
The country is ethnically diverse, and there is some correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Burman ethnic group, and among the Shan and Mon ethnic minorities of the eastern and southern regions. In much of the country there appears to be some correlation between religion and social class. Non-Buddhists tend to be better educated, more urbanized, and more business oriented than the Buddhist majority.
Christianity is the dominant religion among the Kachin ethnic group of the northern region and the Chin and Naga ethnic groups of the western region (some of whom also practice traditional indigenous religions). Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups of the southern and eastern regions, although many other Karen and Karenni are Theravada Buddhists. Hinduism is practiced chiefly by the Indian population, mostly Tamils and Bengalis, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region. Some Tamils, however, are Catholics. Islam is practiced widely in Arakan State, where it is the dominant religion of the Rohingya minority, as well as among some Indians and Bengalis. The Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions. Traditional indigenous religions are practiced widely among smaller ethnic groups in the northern regions and practices drawn from those indigenous religions persist widely in popular Buddhist rituals, especially in rural areas.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The country has been ruled since 1962 by highly authoritarian military regimes. The latest military regime, now called the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), has governed without a constitution or legislature since 1988. The most recent constitution, promulgated in 1974, permits both legislative and administrative restrictions on religious freedom: "the national races shall enjoy the freedom to profess their religion provided that the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest." Most adherents of religions that were registered with the authorities generally have enjoyed the right to worship as they choose; however, the Government has imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently abused the right to religious freedom.
Since independence in 1948, many of the ethnic minority areas have been bases for armed resistance against the Government. Although the Government has negotiated ceasefire agreements with most armed ethnic groups since 1989, active Shan, Karen, and Karenni insurgencies continued, and a Chin insurgency has developed since the late 1980s. Successive civilian and military governments have tended to view religious freedom in the context of threats to national unity.
There is no official state religion; however, in practice the Government continued to show a preference for Theravada Buddhism. Successive governments, civilian and military, have supported and associated themselves conspicuously with Buddhism.
Virtually all organizations, religious or otherwise, must be registered with the Government. A government directive exempts "genuine" religious organizations from registration; however, in practice only registered organizations can buy or sell property or open bank accounts, which coerces most religious organizations to register. Religious organizations register with the Ministry of Home Affairs with the endorsement of the Ministry for Religious Affairs. The Government also provides some utility services, such as electricity, at preferential rates to recognized religious organizations.
Buddhist doctrine remained part of the state-mandated curriculum in all elementary schools. Individual children could opt out of instruction in Buddhism, and sometimes did. All students are required to recite a Buddhist prayer. Some Muslim students are allowed to leave the room, while at some schools non-Buddhists are forced to recite. The Government also funded two state universities to train Buddhist monks, and one university intended to teach non-Burmese about Burmese Theravada Buddhism.
Official public holidays include some Christian and Islamic holy days, as well as several Theravada Buddhist holy days.
The Government ostensibly promoted mutual understanding among practitioners of different religions. The Government maintained multi-religion monuments in downtown Rangoon and in other major cities. In 1998, the Government announced plans to build a new multi-religion square on some of the land that it recovered in 1997 by relocating Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim cemeteries in Rangoon's Kyandaw neighborhood. During 2001, the Government objected to the inclusion of a cross in the design of a proposed Christian monument at the site; as a result, there was no progress on the project during the period covered by this report.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Government continued to show its preference for Theravada Buddhism and to control the organization and restrict the activities and expression of the monkhood ("sangha"), although some monks have resisted such control. Beginning in late 1990, the Government banned any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. These nine orders submit to the authority of a state-sponsored State Monk Coordination Committee ("Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee" – SMNC), which is elected indirectly by monks. The junta also authorized military commanders to try Buddhist monks before military tribunals for "activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism," and imposed on Buddhist monks a code of conduct. Infractions of the code are punished by criminal penalties. In November 2001, two nuns at Thayet were arrested and imprisoned for violating this order. Since the early 1990s, the junta increasingly has made special efforts to link itself with Buddhism as a means of boosting its own legitimacy. State-controlled news media frequently depicted or described government officials paying homage to Buddhist monks; making donations at pagodas throughout the country; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore or maintain pagodas; and organizing ostensibly voluntary "people's donations" of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist religious shrines throughout the country. State-owned newspapers routinely featured, as front-page banner slogans, quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. The Government has published books of Buddhist religious instruction. The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a government-sponsored mass organization in which participation often is not entirely voluntary, has organized courses in Buddhist culture attended by millions of persons, according to state-owned media reports.
The Government continued to fund two state Sangha Universities in Rangoon and Mandalay to train Buddhist monks under the control of the SMNC. The Government's relations with the Buddhist monks and Buddhist schools are handled chiefly by the Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS) in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. During the mid-1990s, the Government funded the construction of the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University (ITBMU) in Rangoon, which opened in December 1998. The ITBMU's stated purpose is "to share Burma's knowledge of Buddhism with the people of the world." The main language of instruction is English.
The junta, which continued to operate a pervasive internal security apparatus, infiltrated or monitored the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations. Religious activities and organizations of all faiths also were subject to broad government restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The Government also subjected all publications, including religious publications, to control and censorship. The Government generally prohibited outdoor meetings, including religious meetings, of more than five persons. This monitoring and control undermined the free exchange of thoughts and ideas associated with religious activities. The Government continued to monitor closely the activities of members of all religions in part because religious leaders and practitioners in the past have become active politically. In 1995, the Government prohibited any political party member from being ordained. Although this measure remained in effect, it was not strictly enforced.
The Government continued to discriminate against members of minority religions, restricting the educational, proselytizing, and building activities of minority religious groups. There is a concentration of Christians among some of the ethnic minorities (such as the Karen and the Kachin) against which the army has fought for decades. However, groups that practice Buddhism (like the Shan) also have waged many of the ethnic insurgencies.
Government authorities, often in support of local Buddhist populations opposed to the spread of Christianity, continued to prohibit Christian clergy from proselytizing in some areas. For example, in early April 2002 the Government suddenly rescinded the Kachin Baptist Convention's (KBC) permission to hold its 125th anniversary celebration in Kachin State. The celebration, which reportedly attracted approximately 30,000 members later, took place in November 2002 and the KBC elected a new General Secretary. The Government initially also denied the Baptist Youth Assembly permission to hold a rally for 3,000 members in Taunggyi, Shan State, in November 2001. In May 2002, the Government allowed the group to hold the rally but attendance was restricted to only 300 members.
In general, the Government has not allowed permanent foreign religious missions to operate in the country since the mid-1960s, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized all private schools and hospitals, which were extensive and were affiliated mostly with Christian religious organizations. The Government is not known to have paid any compensation in connection with these extensive confiscations. The Government has allowed a few elderly Catholic priests and nuns who worked in the country prior to independence to continue their work. At times, religious groups, including Catholics and Protestants, have brought in foreign clergy and religious workers as tourists but have been careful to ensure that their activities have not been perceived as proselytizing by the Government. Some Christian theological seminaries established before 1962 also continued to operate; however, in 2000 military authorities closed a Bible school, which had been operating in Tamu Township in Sagaing division since 1976.
Christian groups continued to experience increasing difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches in most regions. Muslims reported that they essentially were banned from constructing any new mosques anywhere in the country and had great difficulty in obtaining permission to repair or expand existing structures. Buddhist groups are not known to have experienced similar difficulties in obtaining permission to build pagodas or monasteries. In parts of Chin State, authorities reportedly have not authorized the construction of any new churches since 1997. The Government reportedly also has denied permission for churches to be built on main roads in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. In Rangoon, authorities have instructed various Christian groups to call their worship facilities "social centers" rather than churches. One source estimated that the Government approves construction of only approximately 10 to 15 new churches per year. The Religious Affairs Ministry argued that permission to build new religious buildings "depends upon the population of the location"; however, there appeared to be no correlation between the construction of pagodas and the demand for additional places of Buddhist worship. In most regions of the country, Christian and Muslim groups that sought to build small churches or mosques on side streets or other inconspicuous locations did so with informal, rather than formal, approval from local authorities. However, obtaining informal approval from local authorities creates a tenuous legal situation. When local authorities or conditions changed, informal approvals for construction have been rescinded abruptly, and construction halted. In some cases, buildings have been torn down.
Since the 1960s, Christian and Islamic groups have had difficulties importing religious literature into the country. All publications, religious and secular, remain subject to control and censorship. Translations of the Bible into indigenous languages cannot be imported legally; however, Bibles could be printed locally in indigenous languages with government permission, but permission was often difficult to obtain. During the period covered by this report, there were no reports of the confiscation of Bibles or other religious materials. In January 2002, the German-based company Good Books for All was allowed to distribute 10,000 Bibles in the country. In 1999 however, approximately 20,000 illegally imported Bibles were seized in Tamu Township in Sagaing division. During 2001, countering rumors that the Bibles were destroyed, authorities informed one religious group that the Bibles were in storage in Rangoon. At the end of the period covered by this report, the disposition of these Bibles remained unclear. One religious group reported that in 2001 it had received government permission to import 2,000 English-language Bibles, the first such import allowed in 20 years. The Bibles were not imported; however, and in May 2002 the Government reversed its earlier decision.
State censorship authorities continued to enforce restrictions on the local publication of the Bible, and Christian and Muslim publications in general. The most onerous restriction is a list of over 100 prohibited words that the censors would not allow in Christian or Islamic literature because they purportedly are indigenous language terms long used in Buddhist literature. Many of these words have been used and accepted by some of the country's Christian and Muslim groups since the colonial period. Organizations that translate and publish non-Buddhist religious texts are appealing these restrictions. They reportedly have succeeded in reducing the number of prohibited words to approximately 12, but the issue still was pending at the end of the period covered by this report. In addition, according to other reports, the censors have objected to passages of the Old Testament and the Koran that may appear to approve the use of violence against nonbelievers. Although possession of publications not approved by the censors is an offense for which persons have been arrested and prosecuted in the past, there have been no reports of arrests or prosecutions for possession of any traditional religious literature in recent years.
The Government allowed members of all religious groups to establish and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries and to travel abroad for religious purposes, subject to restrictive passport and visa issuance practices, foreign exchange controls, and government monitoring that extends to all international activities by all citizens regardless of religion. The Government sometimes expedites its burdensome passport issuance procedures for Muslims making the Hajj.
Religious affiliation sometimes is indicated on Government-issued identification cards that citizens and permanent residents of the country are required to carry at all times. There appear to be no consistent criteria governing whether religion is indicated on an identification card. Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on some official application forms, such as passports, which have a separate "field" for religion, as well as ethnicity.
Non-Buddhists continued to experience employment discrimination at upper levels of the public sector. Only one non-Buddhist served in the Government at a ministerial level. The same person, a brigadier general, is the only non-Buddhist known to hold flag rank in the armed forces. The Government discouraged Muslims from entering military service, and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspired to promotion beyond middle ranks were encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism.
Members of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Arakan State, on the country's western coast, continued to experience severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The Government denies citizenship status to most Rohingyans on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as required by the country's highly restrictive citizenship law. Muslim Rohingya minority returnees from Bangladesh complained of severe government restrictions on their ability to travel and to engage in economic activity. Unlike the practice for other foreign persons in the country, these Muslims are not issued a Foreign Registration Card. They are required to obtain permission from the township authorities whenever they wish to leave their village area. Authorities generally do not grant permission to Rohingya Muslims, or other native non-Muslim Arakanese, to travel to Rangoon. However, permission sometimes can be obtained through bribery. In addition, because the Government reserves secondary education for citizens only, Rohingyans do not have access to state-run schools beyond primary education, and are unable to obtain most civil service positions. Restrictions on Muslim travel and worship, in particular, reportedly continued to increase countrywide during the period covered by this report.
Abuses of Religious Freedom
Government restrictions on speech, press, assembly, and movement, including diplomatic travel, make it difficult to obtain timely and accurate information on human rights in Burma, including freedom of religion. Information about abuses often becomes available only months or years after the events.
There continued to be reports that military officers killed villagers who refused to provide porterage to the Army. For example, in December 2000, junta military officers allegedly shot and killed the local imam of a mosque in Karen State for asking the authorities to spare him from porterage, as it was the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. The military has killed religious figures on other occasions as well. In May 2002, troops killed 10 ethnic Karen, including a pastor, one day after being ambushed by fighters from a Karen resistance group.
Government security forces continued to take actions against Christian groups, arresting clergy, destroying churches, and prohibiting religious services. Evangelists in South Dagon Township near Rangoon were threatened in 2002 and 2003 with arrest if they opened their home churches and kindergartens. In Rangoon during 2001, authorities closed more than 80 house churches (a traditional gathering place for many Christians) because they did not have proper authorization to hold religious meetings. At the same time, the authorities have made it increasingly difficult to obtain approval for the construction of authorized churches. In Chin State in the western part of the country in particular, the Government attempted to coerce members of the Chin ethnic minority to convert to Buddhism and prevented Christian Chin from proselytizing by, among other things, arresting and physically abusing Christian clergy and destroying churches. Until 1990 the Chin generally practiced either Christianity or traditional indigenous religions with little interference from the Government. (The Chin were the only major ethnic minority in the country that did not support any significant armed organization in active rebellion against the Government or in an armed ceasefire with the Government. However, Chin opposition groups emerged in 1988 and subsequently developed active insurgencies against the Government.)
Authorities have attempted to prevent Chin Christians from practicing their religion. Military units repeatedly located their camps on the sites of Christian churches and graveyards, which were destroyed to build these camps; local Chin Christians were forced to assist in these acts of desecration. In addition, there were reports of the army desecrating churches in remote areas by converting them to military bases. Since the early 1990s, security forces have torn down or forced villagers to tear down crosses that had been erected outside Chin Christian villages. These crosses often have been replaced with pagodas, sometimes built with forced labor. It also was reported that in July 2000, Captain Khin Maung Myint forcibly ordered the closure of all Christian schools in Tamu Township.
Since 1990 the Government has supported forced conversions of Christians to Buddhism. The authorities reportedly subjected Christian sermons to censorship and repeatedly prohibited Christian clergy from proselytizing. In April 2002, two Chin pastors and their families reportedly were arrested in a suburb of Rangoon for having unregistered overnight guests in their home. However, one of the pastors had filed the necessary paperwork and had not received a reply. The arrests reportedly were an effort to force them to stop proselytizing so boldly in the Dagon North area. When they refused, they were sent from Dagon North police station to Insein prison. The pastors and their families have reportedly been released from prison.
In the past, soldiers beat Christian clergy who refused to sign statements promising to stop preaching to non-Christians. Since 1990, government authorities and security forces, with assistance from monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions, have sought to prevent Christian Chins from proselytizing to Chins who practice indigenous religions.
Since 1990, authorities and security forces have promoted Buddhism over Christianity among the Chin ethnic minority in diverse and often coercive ways. This campaign, reportedly accompanied by other efforts to "Burmanize" the Chin, has involved a large increase in military units stationed in Chin State and other predominately Chin areas, state-sponsored immigration of Buddhist Burman monks from other regions, and construction of Buddhist monasteries and shrines in Chin communities with few or no Buddhists, often by means of forced "donations" of money or labor. Local government officials promised monthly support payments to individuals and households who converted to Buddhism. Government soldiers stationed in Chin State reportedly were given higher rank and pay if they married Chin women and converted them to Buddhism. The authorities reportedly supplied rice to Buddhists at lower prices than to Christians, distributed extra supplies of foodstuffs to Buddhists on Sunday mornings while Christians attended church, and exempted converts to Buddhism from forced labor.
In 2001, there were credible reports that in Karen State's Pa'an township army units repeatedly conscripted as porters young men leaving Sunday worship services at some Christian churches, causing young men to avoid church attendance. Soldiers led by officers repeatedly disrupted Christian worship services and celebrations. Chin Christians were forced to "donate" labor to clean and maintain Buddhist shrines. There also were a number of credible reports that the army continued to force Chin to porter for it, both in Chin State and Sagaing division. More specifically it was reported that army units were no longer given funds for rations, and thus had to live off local villagers, using force if help was refused, although villagers reportedly were allowed to buy their way out of such work. Local government officials ordered Christian Chin to attend sermons by newly arrived Buddhist monks who disparaged Christianity. Many Christian Chin were pressured and some were forced to attend schools for monks and Buddhist monasteries and then were encouraged to convert to Buddhism. Local government officials separated the children of Chin Christians from their parents under false pretenses of giving them free secular education and allowing them to practice their own religion, while in fact the children were lodged in Buddhist monasteries where they were instructed in and converted to Buddhism without their parents' knowledge or consent. While it could not be independently verified, the Chin Human Rights Organization reported the January 2003 escape of five Chin children who had been forcibly placed in a Buddhist monastery in Matupi Township.
In 2001, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization, Lt. Colonel Biak To was fired from his military position and fined; allegedly his army and police superiors discriminated against him because of his Christian and Chin identity.
There were unconfirmed reports of governmental restrictions on the religious freedom of Christians among the Naga ethnic minority in the far northwest of the country. These reports suggested that the Government sought to coerce members of the Naga to convert to Buddhism by means similar to those used to convert members of the Chin to Buddhism. However, reports concerning the Naga, although credible, were less numerous than reports concerning the Chin. Consequently, knowledge of the status of religious freedom among the Naga is less certain. During 1999, the first mass exodus of Naga religious refugees from the country occurred; more than 1,000 Christians of the Naga ethnic group reportedly fled the country to India. These Naga claimed that the army and Buddhist monks tried to force them to convert to Buddhism, had forced them to close churches in their villages, and then desecrated the churches. A particularly harsh military commander in the Naga area reportedly was removed from command in late 2000 and imprisoned for rape. Since 2001 until the present there were several cases where Army personnel were reportedly given incentives to marry Naga Christians and convert them to Buddhism.
There were credible reports that SPDC authorities have systematically repressed and relocated Muslims to isolate them in certain areas. For example, Muslims in Arakan State have been forced to donate time, money, and materials toward buildings for the Buddhist community. Certain townships in the Arakan State, such as Thandwe, Gwa, and Taung-gut, were declared "Muslim-free zones" by government decree in 1983. In Thandwe, there are still original-resident Muslims living there, but new Muslims are not allowed to buy plots or houses, or move in. In Gwa and Taung-gut, Muslims no longer are permitted to live in the areas, mosques have been destroyed and lands confiscated. To ensure that the mosques are not rebuilt, they have been replaced with government-owned buildings, monasteries, and Buddhist temples. In 2000 and 2001, in northern Arakan State, the Government systematically destroyed mosques in some small villages. Even in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, there were credible allegations of government destruction of mosques, (which typically are little more than thatch huts), which were built or expanded without permission. There were other such allegations in the Rangoon division. In recent years, there had been credible reports that Muslims in Arakan State have been compelled to build Buddhist pagodas as part of the country's forced labor program. These pagodas often have been built on confiscated Muslim land. However, there were no known reports of such activity during the period covered by this report.
In 2001 there was a sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence in the country. In February 2001, riots broke out in the town of Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State. There were various, often conflicting, accounts of how the riots began, but reports consistently stated that government security and firefighting forces did little to prevent attacks on Muslim mosques, businesses, and residences. There also were credible reports that at least some of the monks that led attacks on Muslims were military or USDA instigators dressed as monks. After 4 days of rioting, security forces moved in and prevented any additional violence. An estimated 50 Muslim homes were burned and both Muslims and Buddhists were killed and injured. Since that time, the Government has tightened already strict travel restrictions for Muslims in the area, essentially preventing any Muslims from travelling between Sittwe and other towns in the region. In 2001, seven Arakanese politicians were sentenced to 7- to 12-year prison terms for inciting the riots.
In May 2001, anti-Muslim riots broke out in the town of Taungoo in the Bago Division between Rangoon and Mandalay (an estimated 2,000 of 90,000 Taungoo inhabitants are Muslim). The riots followed the same pattern as those in Sittwe: there were varying accounts of what precipitated the fighting, security and firefighting forces did not intervene, and Muslim mosques, businesses, and residences were targeted. Again there were credible reports that the monks that appeared to be inciting at least some of the violence were Union Solidarity and Development Association or military personnel dressed as monks. After 2 days of violence the military stepped in and the violence immediately ended, but not before there was widespread destruction of Muslim homes and businesses and, reportedly, of several mosques. An estimated 10 Muslims and 2 Buddhists were killed in this incident; however, there was never any verification of this.
While there is no direct evidence linking the Government to these violent acts against Muslims, there were reports that the instigators were military or Union Solidarity and Development Association personnel. Local government authorities reportedly also alerted Muslim elders in advance of the attacks and warned them not to retaliate to avoid escalating the violence. While the specifics of how these attacks began and who carried them out may never be documented fully, it appears that the Government was, at best, very slow to protect Muslims and their property from destruction. The violence significantly heightened tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities. In June 2003, there were unverified reports of incitement of anti-Muslim violence by USDA members in Irrawaddy Division.
While reported incidents of anti-Muslim violence were fewer during the period covered by this report than in the previous year, restrictions on Muslims countrywide reportedly have increased, especially since the fall of 2001. Muslims reportedly have not been allowed to build any new mosques in the country, or to replace those destroyed in the rioting of 2001. Authorities also have refused to approve requests for gatherings to celebrate traditional Muslim holidays, and have restricted the number of Muslims that can gather in one place. Restrictions on Muslim travel reportedly have increased throughout the country.
In March 2002, six Muslims were reportedly arrested in connection with the unauthorized addition to a madrassa in Arakan State. They were released following demolition of the unauthorized construction. There was also an unverified report of the burning of Muslim homes in a village in Karen State in late April.
In 1991, tens of thousands (according to some reports as many as 300,000 persons) of members of the Muslim Rohingya minority fled from Arakan State into Bangladesh following anti-Muslim violence alleged, although not proven, to have involved government troops. Many of the 21,000 Rohingya Muslims remaining in refugee camps in Bangladesh have refused to return because they fear human rights abuses, including religious persecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that Burmese authorities cooperated in investigating isolated incidents of renewed abuse of repatriated citizens.
The Government continued to prevent Buddhist monks, along with all other segments of society, from calling for democracy and political dialog with pro-democracy forces. During the period covered by this report, government efforts to control these monks have included travel restrictions, arrests, pressure on Buddhist leaders to expel "undisciplined monks," and a prohibition on certain monasteries from receiving political party members as overnight guests. More than 100 monks credibly have been identified as having been imprisoned during the 1990s for supporting democracy and human rights; however, about half of these have been released, and there was no reliable estimate of the number of Buddhist clergy in prisons or labor camps at the end of the period covered by this report. Following a February 2000 letter from the Young Buddhist Monk Union advocating political actions, government authorities reportedly arrested approximately 40 monks in May or June 2001. By the end of the period covered by this report, the status of those arrested remained unknown. Monks serving sentences of life in prison reportedly included the venerable U Kalyana of Mandalay, a member of the Aung San Red Star Association, and the venerable U Kawiya of the Phayahyi monastery in Mandalay.
In July 2000, U Tay Zawata, a monk in Shan State, filed a complaint with SPDC Secretary One General Khin Nyunt and the Attorney General stating that in August 1999, government authorities in the town of Tachileik had destroyed two monasteries and dispersed over 50 monks without a proper court order and without compensation. In August 2001, at a religious ceremony in Mandalay, a Buddhist monk reportedly was arrested for delivering a sermon critical of the prevailing economic and political situation. There was no information available on whether he was later released or if he remains in prison. In 2002, the authorities expropriated a Rangoon monastery presided over by a senior Buddhist monk. This seizure led to complaints and the subsequent arrest of eight monks.
There continued to be credible reports from diverse regions of the country that government officials compelled persons, especially in rural areas, to contribute money, food, or uncompensated labor to state-sponsored projects to build, renovate, or maintain Buddhist religious shrines or monuments. The Government calls these contributions "voluntary donations" and imposes them on both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. There also were reports of forced labor being used to dismantle temples and monasteries. In July 2000, army troops from the 246th Infantry Division reportedly forced 54 men to dismantle several temples and monasteries in the forced relocation areas of Kun-Hing township; in August 2000, the same troops again conscripted 87 workers from the same town and forced them to build a shelter for the lumber and tin sheets taken from the dismantled monasteries.
Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy, was released from house arrest in May 2002 and given freedom to travel around the country. However, on May 30, 2003, forces allied with the Government attacked her and her convoy while traveling in Sagaing Division. The Government reportedly used criminals dressed in monks' robes in the ambush.
Forced Religious Conversion
Since 1990 government authorities and security forces, with assistance from monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions, have sought to coerce Chins, including children, to convert to Theravada Buddhism.
There were credible reports that hundreds of Christian tribal Nagas in the country have been converted forcibly to Buddhism by the country's military. The persons were lured with promises of government jobs to convert to Buddhism, while those who resisted were abused and kept as bonded labor by the military.
There were no reports of forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
There are social tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities. Preferential treatment, both in hiring and in other areas – for non-Buddhists during British colonial rule, and for Buddhists since independence – is a key source of these tensions. There is widespread prejudice against Muslims, many of whom are ethnic Indians or Bengalis. The Government reportedly contributed to or instigated anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State in 1991, in Shan State and Rangoon in 1996, in cities throughout the country in 1997, and again in 2001.
A book entitled "In Fear of Our Race Disappearing," which first appeared in print in 1997 or 1998 by an unknown author, has contributed to anti-Muslim sentiments among Burmese Buddhists. The book describes how Muslims will displace Buddhists in the country unless actions are taken against them. Distribution of the book appeared to increase during 2001 and 2002, although it was not clear who published it. The book was cited as one factor that contributed to the rioting in early 2001 in Sittwe and Taungoo (see Section II).
Since 1994, when the pro-government Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was organized, there has been armed conflict between the DKBA and the Karen National Union (KNU). Although the DKBA reportedly includes some Christians, and there are many Buddhists in the KNU, the armed conflict between the two Karen groups has had strong religious overtones. During the mid-1990s, it reportedly was common DKBA practice to torture Christian villagers and kill them if they refused to convert to Buddhism; however, DKBA treatment of Christians reportedly improved substantially after the DKBA began to administer the regions that it had under its control.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
Since 1988, a primary objective of U.S. Government policy toward the country has been to promote increased respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. The United States has discontinued bilateral aid to the Government, suspended issuance of licenses to export arms to the country, and suspended the generalized system of preferences and Export Import Bank financial services in support of U.S. exports to the country. The U.S. Government also has suspended all Overseas Private Investment Corporation financial services in support of U.S. investment in the country, ended active promotion of trade with the country, and halted issuance of visas to high government officials and their immediate family members. It also has opposed all assistance to the Government by international financial institutions, and urged the governments of other countries to take similar actions. New investment in the country by U.S. citizens has been illegal since 1997.
In November 2000, the U.S. Government actively supported the decision of the International Labor Organization to implement sanctions against the regime based on the Government's continued systematic use of forced labor for a wide range of civilian and military purposes.
The U.S. Embassy promotes religious freedom during contacts with all facets of Burmese society. During the period covered by this report, Embassy officials discussed religious freedom with government officials, private citizens, scholars, representatives of other governments, international media representatives, and international business representatives. As a key part of the Embassy's reporting and public diplomacy activities, Embassy staff met repeatedly with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic religious groups, including ethnic minority religious leaders; members of the faculties of schools of theology; and other religious-affiliated organizations and NGOs. Through public diplomacy outreach and by traveling as much as permitted, Embassy staff were able to offer moral support to local NGOs and religious leaders and to act as a conduit for information exchange with otherwise isolated human rights NGOs and religious leaders.
In March, the Secretary of State designated Burma as a "country of particular concern" under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Secretary of State also had designated Burma a country of particular concern in 1999, 2000, and 2001.