Of a total population of 56 million approximately 88 per cent are Theravada Buddhists, 6 per cent are Christians and 4 per cent Muslims. The overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population was estimated at 1.1 million prior to the outbreak of violence and initial exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh in October 2016. There is significant demographic correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Burma has a long history of FoRB violations stemming from the rule of the military junta which controlled the country for over 50 years from 1962. The government in 2020 continued to contribute to religious intolerance, discriminating against religious and ethnic minorities. There was a determination to preserve and protect a Buddhist identity. The military, and its affiliated political party, fuelled a movement of Burmese Buddhist nationalism. The rise of ultra-Buddhist religious nationalism led to anti-Muslim violence and discrimination throughout the country, and the genocide of the Rohingyas. Christians also continued to face restrictions, discrimination and occasional violence as a result of Buddhist nationalism in society, as well as targeted attacks by the military in the ethnic conflict regions.
The Rohingya are not regarded as Burmese citizens. Since 2017 the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar has documented instances of Burmese military units involved in indiscriminate killings of civilians, mass rape, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, looting, and property destruction. Both government authorities and non-state actors also shuttered and destroyed mosques; prevented Rohingya from worshipping; desecrated Qur’ans; and targeted imams for detention, torture, and killings. Well over a million Rohingya were forced out of their homes in Rakhine State due to the brutal and horrific violence perpetrated by the Burmese military; more than 742,000 Rohingya sought refuge in Bangladesh, while 120,000 are internally displaced in camps within Rakhine State. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) order on January 23, 2020, directed Burma to prevent all genocidal acts against Rohingya Muslims; it adopted “provisional measures” that require it to prevent genocide and take steps to preserve evidence.
Not every Rohingya is a Muslim. Those who are Christians face a double vulnerability – persecuted for their ethnicity and their faith. Last year a group of Rohingya Christians in a UNHCR transit camp in Bangladesh were attacked by a violent mob. They destroyed their homes and their house-church building, and looted their belongings, leaving them with only the clothes they were wearing that day. Some of the Christians were so badly beaten they had to be hospitalised.
Burma’s Religious Conversion Law, part of the “Law for Protection of Race and Religion” requires citizens who wish to change their religion to obtain approval from a newly established Registration Board for religious conversion, set up in all townships.
The predominantly Christian Kachin and Shan states have been plagued by years of fighting between ethnic armed groups and the army. Insurgency groups have been known to close churches and detain civilians, including pastors and bible school students.
The 1 February 2021 coup, which has seen the military seize power once again, sets hope for human rights and FoRB back much further. The military has a long history of weaponizing religion and repressing the rights of religious minorities.
In the UK Parliament, 2021
Lord Alton 29 January;
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
No specific mention of FoRB.
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Burma’s population is 87.9% Buddhist, with the country also home to significant minorities of Christians (6.2%) and Muslims (4.3%) as well as small Animist and Hindu communities. Around 0.1% or less identify as having no faith.
Burma has a long history of FoRB violations stemming from the rule of the military junta which controlled the country for over 50 years from 1962. The current government continues to contribute to religious intolerance, discriminating against religious and ethnic minorities. At the core of its governance lies a determination to preserve and protect a Buddhist identity. The military, and its affiliated political party, has fuelled a movement of Burmese Buddhist nationalism, encouraging groups such as the ultranationalist Buddha Dhamma Paahita Foundation, formerly known as Ma Ba Tha, leading to a dramatic rise in religious intolerance throughout the country.
Activist Khin Zaw Win, speaking in March 2019, exhibited serious concern about the Burmese military’s continued encouragement of religious nationalism in an effort to maintain its grip on power. Moreover, the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, reiterated her view in March 2019 that ‘’the pervasive nature of hate speech [in Burma] is alarming”.
The principle violation of FoRB during the reporting period has been perpetrated against the country’s Rohingya Muslim community. These violations began with a military offensive on the 25 August 2017 leading to home burnings, mass rape, torture and execution without trial of substantial proportions of the Rohingya population. This offensive has resulted in approximately 745,000 stateless refugees now residing in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has deemed these incidents as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, while both the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Burma and the 2018 UNHCR independent international fact-finding mission has uncovered alarming evidence of genocide.
There has been little progress towards the negotiation of a ‘’safe and dignified’’ repatriation of the Rohingya who believe they will face extreme violence upon returning to the Burma, with one refugee telling Human Rights Watch: ‘’they will kill us if we go back’’. Furthermore, the Burmese leadership has, to this point, repeatedly refused to grant the Rohingya equal access to citizenship. The government’s National Verification Card system for repatriated Rohingya has been described by activists as designating the Rohingya as foreigners in their own country.
Christians have also continued to face threats from the Burmese military. Christians are threatened and intimidated on the basis that their presence threatens an ultra-nationalistic conception of Burmese identity. Clashes between the Burmese army and the Kachin people, the majority of whom are Christian, has been ongoing for many years since the ceasefire agreement between state forces and the Kachin Independence Army collapsed in 2011. As of April 2018, an estimated 120,000 people had been displaced by fighting across Kachin and Shan state. There was a major escalation in fighting in early April 2018.53 As a result, more than 30 churches have been destroyed in Kachin State in recent years – predominantly by bomb attacks.
There is also evidence that women in the Kachin region are victims of sexual violence. Many of the ethnic Kachin women and girls displaced by the conflict have subsequently faced the threat of being trafficked to China as ‘’brides’’ Kachin activist Francis Zau Tu outlined in November 2018 how ‘’rape, sexual violence, torture, and arbitrary arrest are just some of the human-rights abuses that have been meted out’’ against his people.
In June 2019, more than 220 people in Shan state (including 130 women and children) fled their homes as a result of military tensions between the Burmese Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army. Shan state also saw the forcible detainment of 41 Bible students in October 2018 by the United Wa State Army (UWSA) (the army connected to the de facto ruling party of Wa state).
Twenty female students remain in captivity as of July 2019.58 During this time, the UWSA has continued to ban prayer in churches, religious teaching in schools, and the construction of new churches.
In March 2019, the UNHCR too acknowledged the ‘’worsening security situation’’ in Chin state identifying ‘’ongoing international protection needs’’. There is also continued evidence of escalating violence between the Arakan Army and the Burmese Army within Chin state in 2019, of which Christians have been caught in the crossfire. Moreover, two Chin Christians found themselves injured as a result of a religiously-motivated mob attack on 24 December 2018 while preparing for Christmas celebrations.
In the UK Parliament, 2020
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