Burma: ongoing problems for religious minorities

Despite democratic reforms and international pressure that have pushed Burma to improve its human rights record in recent years, religious freedom remains heavily constrained across the country, reports The Huffington Post.

The persecution of the Rohingya Muslim minority in this majority Buddhist country has attracted much international media and foreign policy attention. But in Chin State, along Burma’s northwest border, a predominantly Christian population faces its own challenges and restrictions.

“There is no improvement with regard to religious freedom in Chin State,” said Pu Zoe Ram, chairman of the Chin National Democratic Party. “Authorities destroyed crosses during the military regime and continue to do so.”

Teak and steel crosses atop clocktowers, hillsides and Chin State’s nearly 2,000 churches have long identified the local majority religion. Area Christians consider their destruction, at the behest of government agencies, a direct attack on their faith community.

The Chin Human Rights Organization documented 13 incidents of large crosses being destroyed by order of the Ministry of Religious Affairs during the country’s half-century military regime, which formally ended in 2011. Since then and under nominally democratic rule, at least four more large crosses have been destroyed.

“The previous regime repressed the Christian religion. The army pulled down crosses, which are sacred. The new government is doing the same and is refusing permission to build new churches,” said Daw Zar Tlem, a member of Burma’s House of Representatives, who represents Thang Tlang township in Chin State.

In July 2011, shortly after Burma’s military junta was officially dissolved, two crosses were burned in the townships of Kyin Dawe and Kan Pat Lat. Local Christians in Hakha and Falam were ordered to replace crosses with Buddhist shrines, and a cross in Tiddim Township was removed to make way for a new road, officials from Burma’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party told villagers.

“Religious symbols should be built for people in that area. They should not be misused for political purposes,” said Saya Mya, who is Buddhist and secretary of the Chin Progressive Party.

Meanwhile, The Myanmar Times reported that a leading government official has said that the designation of Burma by the United States as a “country of particular concern” for failures to uphold religious freedom was a political act designed to keep the country under control. U Khin Maung Yi, an Amyotha Hluttaw representative for Ayeyarwady Region’s No 6 constituency, asked in parliament what the Union government was doing to get Burma removed from the State Department list of countries that are believed to violate religious freedom. Other countries listed include China, Iran and North Korea.

In reply, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs U Tin Oo Lwin said Burma’s inclusion on the list, at the recommendation of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, was a political decision.

In the House of Lords, APPG on International Religious Freedom or Belief vice chair Lord Alton of Liverpool (CB) has had his question, regarding the remarks made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, Yangjee Lee, answered by Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay of St Johns (Con).

Baroness Anelay said that the Government strongly support the mandate and work of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee. While her full report has not yet issued, the Minister said that the UK shares her concerns about the proposed so-called protection of race and religion bills.

The Minister concluded by extending her answer to publically deplore the hateful and abusive language used by a prominent monk against Ms Lee following her recent visit. Such sexist abuse and intimidation of human rights defenders emphasises the need for the Burmese government to increase its efforts to strengthen respect for universal human rights and tackle hate speech, Baroness Anelay said.