2002 US Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report
International Religious Freedom Report 2002
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
Burma has been ruled since 1962 by highly repressive, authoritarian military regimes. Since 1988 when the armed forces brutally suppressed massive prodemocracy demonstrations, a junta composed of senior military officers has ruled by decree, without a constitution or legislature. The most recent Constitution, promulgated in 1974, permitted 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 has restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, has discouraged or prohibited minority religions from constructing new places of worship, and, in some ethnic minority areas, has coercively promoted Buddhism over other religions, particularly among members of the minority ethnic groups. Christian groups have experienced increasing difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches, while Muslims report that they essentially are banned from constructing any new mosques anywhere in the country. While the sharp increase in the level of anti-Muslim violence during the period covered by the previous report (some of which the Government may have tacitly supported, contributed to, or even instigated) has abated, there were reports that restrictions on Muslim travel and worship countrywide have increased, especially since the fall of 2001.
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. A sharp increase in anti-Muslim violence in 2001 significantly heightened tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities, as it had done in the past.
Since 1988 a primary objective of U.S. Government policy towards the country has been to promote increased respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. In September 2001, the Secretary of State designated Burma a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom. The Secretary of State had so designated Burma in 1999 and 2000.
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 are Theravada Buddhists, 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 for their material needs entirely on alms donated by the laity, including daily donations of food. The clergy also includes a much smaller number of nuns. There are minorities of Christians (mostly Baptists as well as some Catholics and Anglicans), Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to government statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practice Buddhism, 4 percent practice Christianity, and 4 percent practice Islam; however, these statistics may understate the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. A very small Jewish community, estimated to be less than 50 persons, exists in Rangoon.
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 also is 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 which practice traditional indigenous religions); it also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups of the southern and eastern regions. Many other Karen and Karenni are Theravada Buddhists. Hinduism is practiced chiefly by Indians, mostly Tamils and Bengalis, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region (although many Tamils are Catholic). Islam is practiced widely in Rakhine State, where it is the dominant religion of the Rohingya minority, and among Indians and Bengalis and their descendants. The Chinese ethnic minorities 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, permitted 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 to the Government. Although the Government has negotiated ceasefire agreements with most armed ethnic groups since 1989, active Shan, Karen and Karenni insurgencies continue, and a Chin insurgency has developed since the late 1980’s. 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 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 State 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 may opt out of instruction in Buddhism, and sometimes do; however, at times the Government also deals harshly with efforts to opt out. The Government also funded two state universities to train Buddhist clergy, 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 promotes mutual understanding among practitioners of different religions. The Government maintains a multi-religion monument in downtown Rangoon. 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, and, as a result, there was no progress on the project during the period covered by this report.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
The Government continued both to show preference for Theravada Buddhism, the majority religion, and to control the organization and restrict the activities and expression of its clergy (“sangha”), although the clergy have resisted such control. Beginning in late 1990, the Government banned any organization of Buddhist clergy other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. These nine orders submit to the authority of a state-sponsored State Clergy Coordination Committee (“Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee”–SMNC), which is elected indirectly by monks. The Government also authorized military commanders to try Buddhist clergy before military tribunals for “activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism,” and imposed on Buddhist clergy a code of conduct. Infractions of the code are punished by criminal penalties. In 1999 the regional military commander in Mandalay reportedly issued an order that forbade Buddhist clergy to leave their township of residence without first surrendering their identity cards and obtaining written permission from local authorities. In November 2001 two nuns at Thayet were arrested and imprisoned for violating this order. Persons other than Buddhist clergy generally were not subject to such severe restrictions on movement.
Since the early 1990’s, the Government increasingly has made special efforts to link itself with Buddhism as a means of boosting its own legitimacy. State-controlled news media continue frequently to depict or describe government members 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 clergy under the control of the SMNC. The State’s relations with the Buddhist clergy and Buddhist schools are handled chiefly by the Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS–“Sasana” means Buddhist doctrine) in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. During the mid-1990’s, 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,” and the main language of instruction is English.
The Government, which operates a pervasive internal security apparatus, generally infiltrates or monitors the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations. Religious activities and organizations of all faiths also are subject to broad government restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The Government also subjects all publications, including religious publications, to control and censorship. The Government generally prohibits outdoor meetings, including religious meetings, of more than five persons. This monitoring and control undermines the free exchange of thoughts and ideas associated with religious activities. The Government continued to monitor closely the activities of members of all religions, including Buddhism, in part because clergy and congregation members in the past have become active politically. In 1995 the military Government prohibited the ordination as clergy of any member of a political party. This measure remains in effect; however, it is 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, although groups that practice Buddhism (like, the Shan) also have waged many of the ethnic insurgencies.
Unlike in past years, there were no reports of clergy being beaten to discourage proselytizing. Local military commanders, who often issued such orders, rarely cited any legal justification for their actions. Government authorities continued to prohibit Christian clergy from proselytizing in some areas, often in support of local Buddhist populations opposed to the spread of Christianity. For example, in early April 2002 the Government suddenly rescinded the Kachin Baptist Convention’s permission to hold its 125th anniversary celebration in Kachin state. The celebration, which was expected to attract approximately 30,000 members, was rescheduled for November 2002. The Government initially also denied the Baptist Youth Assembly 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-1960’s, 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. However, the Government has allowed a few elderly Catholic priests and nuns who have worked in the country since before independence to continue their work. At times, religious groups, including Catholics and Protestants, bring in foreign clergy and religious workers as tourists but are careful to ensure that their activities are not perceived as proselytizing by the Government. Some Christian theological seminaries established before 1962 also have continued to operate; however, in 2000 military authorities forced a Bible school, which had been operating in Tamu township in Sagaing division since 1976, to close.
Christian groups have experienced increasing difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches, while Muslims report that they essentially are banned from constructing any new mosques anywhere in the country. 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. In most regions of the country, Christian and Muslim groups that seek to build small churches or mosques on side streets or other inconspicuous locations do so with informal, rather than formal, approval from local authorities. However, obtaining an informal approval from local authorities creates a tenuous legal situation. When local authorities or conditions change, informal approvals for construction have been rescinded abruptly, construction halted and, in some cases, buildings have been torn down.
Since the 1960’s, 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 can not be imported legally; however, Bibles can be printed locally in indigenous languages with government permission. 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. Last year, 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 for any purpose. The Government sometimes expedited 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 religions on some official application forms, such as, on 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, and the same person, a brigadier general, is the only non-Buddhist known to have held flag rank in the armed forces during the 1990’s. The Government discourages Muslims from entering military service, and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspire to promotion beyond middle ranks are encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism.
Members of the Muslim Rohingya minority in Rakhine state, on the country’s western coast, continued to experience severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The Government denies citizenship status to most Rohingyas 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 complained of severe government restrictions on their ability to travel and their ability to engage in economic activity. Unlike the practice for other foreign persons in the country, these Muslims are not issued a Foreign Registration Card (FRC). 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 travel to Rangoon to Rohingya Muslims, however, permission sometimes can be obtained through bribery. In addition because the Government reserves secondary education for citizens only, Rohingya do not have access to state run schools beyond primary education, and are unable to obtain most civil service positions. There are reports that restrictions on Muslim travel and worship, in particular, have increased 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, from refugees who have fled to other countries, from released political prisoners, or from occasional travel inside the country by foreign journalists and scholars.
There continued to be reports that military officers killed villagers who refused to provide portering services 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 portering, as it was the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. The military on occasion has killed religious figures as well. On May 30, 2002 troops killed 10 ethnic Karen, including a pastor one day after being ambushed by fighters from the Karen Resistance group.
Government security forces continued to take actions against minority Christian groups, arresting clergy, destroying churches, and prohibiting religious services. In Rangoon during 2001, authorities closed more than 80 home-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. Since 1990 the Government has supported forced conversions of Christians to Buddhism. The majority of Chins, however, are still Christian. (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, the Army reportedly tends to use churches, desecrating them for their bases when in remote areas. Since the early 1990’s, 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. During the period covered by this report, there were reports that, while the Government still bans most of these crosses, permission has been granted to erect at least one cross in Southern Chin state. It also was reported that in July 2000, Captain Khin Maung Myint forcibly ordered the closure of all Christian schools in Tamu township.
The authorities reportedly subjected Christian sermons to censorship and repeatedly prohibited Christian clergy from proselytizing. On April 4, 2002, two Chin pastors, Reverend That Ci, his son-inlaw Reverend Lian Za Dal, and their families reportedly were arrested in a suburb of Rangoon for having unregistered overnight guests in their home. However, Reverend That Ci 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 status of their eight family members is unknown. In the past, soldiers beat Christian clergy who refused to sign statements promising to stop preaching to nonChristians. Since 1990 government authorities and security forces, with assistance from monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions, have sought coercively to prevent Christian Chins from proselytizing to Chins who practice indigenous religions.
Since 1990 government 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 coerced Chin women to marry them and convert 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 the past, it credibly was reported 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 the Army no longer takes rations with it, and rather lives off local villagers to feed army personnel, by force if help is 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 are pressured and some are forced to attend schools for monks and Buddhist monasteries and then are 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. Finally, since 1990, government authorities and security forces, with assistance from monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions, coercively have sought to coerce Chins, including children, to convert to Theravada Buddhism.
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 religious (Christian) and ethnic (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, are 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 reportedly 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.
There are credible reports that SPDC authorities have systematically repressed and relocated Muslims to isolate them in certain areas. For example, Rakhine Muslims have been forced to donate time, money, and materials toward buildings for the Buddhist community. There now are certain townships in the Rakhine state, such as Thandwe, Gwa, and Taung-gut, which are “Muslim-free zones.” 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. Authorities also have issued a court order in Rakhine stating that the killing of a Muslim is punishable by a minimal 3-month sentence while the sentence for a Muslim hitting a Buddhist is 3 years. Last year in northern Rakhine state, the Government systematically destroyed mosques in some small villages. In one area, local authorities already had destroyed at least 10 of 40 mosques that had been designated for destruction before higher authorities intervened at the request of international agencies. The mosques, which typically are little more than thatch huts, reportedly were constructed without proper authority by villagers who had difficulty getting to mosques in neighboring towns due to strict travel restrictions on Muslims.
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 Rakhine 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 late March or early April 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 of Agriculture 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. No further information about this incident was available at the end of the period covered by this report.
While there is no direct evidence linking the Government to these violent acts against Muslims, there are reports that the instigators were military or Union Solidarity and Development Association personnel. There also are reports that local government authorities 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.
While anti-Muslim violence abated during the period covered by this report, 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 last year. 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 1991 tens of thousands (according to some reports as many as 300,000 persons) of members of the Muslim Rohingya minority fled from Rakhine 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 feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that authorities cooperated in investigating isolated incidents of renewed abuse of repatriated citizens.
In September 2000, according to the Muslim Information Center of Burma (MICB), a local nongovernmental organization (NGO), four Muslim elders of Daing Win Gwan Block village, Moulmein township in Mon state, filed an application with the authorities to allow the Muslim students to stop learning Buddhism in school; the authorities arrested the four elders for their actions. No further information was available about this incident during the period covered by this report.
The Government continued to prevent Buddhist monks from calling for democracy and political dialog with prodemocracy 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 1990’s 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 the SPDC Secretary One Lt. General 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. On August 1, 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.
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. In recent years, there had been credible reports that Muslims in Rakhine 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. 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.
On June 14, 2002, Aung San Suu Kyi, (leader of the National League for Democracy), traveled to Karen state to visit Thamanya Sayadaw, a famous monk, without incident. Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest in May 2002. Thamanya Sayadaw is revered by the wife of General Than Shwe, the Head of State and Chairman of the SPDC.
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.
According to the Islamic Republic News Agency, there are 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, largely due to preferential treatment by the Government, both in hiring and other areas, in practice (although not in law) both for non-Buddhists during British colonial rule and for Buddhists since independence. 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 Rakhine state in 1991, in Shan state and Rangoon in 1996, in cities throughout the country in 1997, and again during the period covered by this report (see Section II).
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 appears to have increased during the period covered by this report, although it is not clear who has been publishing 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 progovernment 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-1990’s, 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 conquered.
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.
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 has promoted religious freedom in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. This has involved numerous contacts with government officials, private citizens, scholars, representatives of other governments, international media representatives, and international business representatives. Embassy staff have met repeatedly with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic religious groups, members of the faculties of schools of theology, and other religious-affiliated organizations and NGO’s as part of their reporting and public diplomacy activities.
In September 2001, 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 and 2000.
Released on October 7, 2002