WASHINGTON, D.C. — A senior White House official said on Wednesday that a Burmese government policy that strongly favors Buddhists has fueled tensions between followers of different religions in the Southeast Asian country.
“In Burma, preferential treatment for Buddhists and prejudice against ethnic South Asians, particularly ethnic Rohingya Muslims, fuels tensions between the Buddhist majority and Christian and Muslim minorities,” said Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser to the Obama administration.
Speaking at an international religious freedom conference sponsored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, McDonough said that while Burma has eased some restrictions on religious activity, “others remain, including the continued imprisonment of Buddhist monks.”
“As part of our broader engagement to encourage reform, our new ambassador to Burma continues to work on behalf of justice and dignity for victims of religious persecution,” he said in his address to the conference.
The top Obama aide warned that the lack of religious freedom and discrimination against people because of their faith can be a recipe for instability. “When people of faith are denied the opportunity to worship freely, or assemble in fellowship, grievances fester,” he said.
“It creates fissures and mistrust between faiths and sects. It fuels sectarianism as people pull back to the perceived safety of their fellow believers. It emboldens extremists. It can increase instability and the likelihood of violence and war. We’ve seen this throughout history,” McDonough said.
“Religious pluralism, tolerance and freedom can help promote stability, security, development and democratic progress,” he added.
Other countries in Asia have similar issues with religious freedom, he said. In China, for instance, the government continues to outlaw and imprison the worshipers of religious and spiritual groups, including unregistered Christian churches and Tibetan Buddhists.
“In addition to the President’s personal advocacy and engagement that I’ve already mentioned, the need for China to uphold the freedom of religion is a key element at other levels of our engagement with China,” he said.