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.”