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US condemns lack of freedom of religion in Myanmar

Publication Date : 30-07-2014


Myanmar has suffered another blow to its record for human-rights violations as it has been placed on a list of countries that breach the right to freedom of religion.

In the International Religious Freedom Report for 2013, the US Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour stressed that while the Constitution grants freedom of religion, some articles in it, as well as other laws and policies, restrict those rights in Myanmar.

“Societal abuses and discrimination based on a mix of ethnicity, socio-economic status, and religious affiliation, belief, or practice occurred,” the annual report said.

“Although the government’s overall human-rights record continued to improve, organised anti-Muslim hate speech, harassment, and discrimination against Muslims continued, exploited by those seeking to divide and pit Buddhist and Muslim communities against one another, often for political gain,” it said.

“Anti-Muslim violence in Meikhtila … in early 2013 .. showed that mob violence against Muslims was no longer confined to western Rakhine State,” the report added.

The report was released barely a month after the instigated violence in Mandalay that has resulted in weeks-long curfew and prosecutions. Wrapping up her 10-day visit to Myanmar, the UN’s new rights envoy to country, Yanghee Lee, noted that Myanmar’s plans for the future of a western region torn apart by Buddhist-Muslim unrest could result in “permanent segregation” of the two religious groups.

The communal violence has stirred concerns among some US policymakers, which has led the administration to maintain some forms of sanctions on the country and take a more cautious approach to engagement. The communal violence remains a stumbling block for greater integration globally, following decades of isolation, primarily from the West, as well as international and regional development banks and agencies such as the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

While some American companies, including Coca-Cola, the Gap and Ball Corp, are now operating in Myanmar, many remain cautious over concerns of internal instability and reputational damage. The report could also affect the US Trade Representative’s review on granting Myanmar trade privileges under Washington’s generalised system of preferences (GSP). Lifting of sanctions and inclusion within the GSP is expected to boost Myanmar’s trade with the world’s largest economy. Bilateral trade remains paltry despite the easing of import bans at the end of 2012.

US exports to Myanmar were valued at $145.7 million in 2013, while imports were merely $30 million.

“Although the United States has eased most sanctions in response to the [Myanmar] government’s political and economic reforms, the US government maintains specific sanctions against the country for its violations of religious freedom,” the report said.

During 2013, the Myanmar government was praised for the easing of restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Koran, and other Christian and Islamic texts, as well as increasing participation of government officials in public interfaith events.

Yet, the report highlighted several negative reports, including the reported physical abuse and continued detention of religious leaders and believers, restrictions on religious practice and travel, and discrimination in employment and granting building permits. It said Myanmar authorities often denied Muslims living in Rakhine State permission to travel for any purpose; Muslim businesses were unable to procure government contracts without a Buddhist “front” person and were prevented from owning licences to open airlines and banking businesses.

Nearly all promotions to senior positions within the military and civil service were reserved for Buddhists, the report said.

US Embassy officials have discussed the importance of addressing sectarian violence and increasing religious freedom with high-level government officials. These include the ministers of religious affairs, foreign affairs and home affairs, the speaker of the Lower House of Parliament, parliamentarians including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, members of civil society, scholars, and representatives of other governments.

“The US government led international community calls for an end to sectarian violence and for the promotion of religious freedom in its contacts with all sectors of society and increased its engagement with the government on religious freedom issues,” the report said.

The report noted that last year saw the largest displacement of religious communities in recent memory worldwide. In almost every corner of the globe, millions of Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and others representing a range of faiths were forced from their homes on account of their religious beliefs.

Myanmar joins many countries condemned for government repression of religious freedom. Among all, North Korea stood out for its absolute prohibition of religious organisations and harsh punishments for any unauthorised religious activities. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan put severe restrictions on members of religious groups that did not conform to the state-approved religion(s) while in China, Cuba, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, religious activity was only lawful if explicitly authorised by the state.


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