The U.S. Commission on International Religious
Freedom (USCIRF) has monitored religious
freedom conditions in Burma (also known as
Myanmar) since the Commission first began its work
in 1999. The law that created USCIRF, the International
Religious Freedom Act, instructed the Commission to,
among other things, recommend U.S. government policies
in response to religious freedom violations
around the world. Based on Burma’s systematic,
egregious, and ongoing violations of the freedom
of religion or belief, USCIRF consistently has recommended it be
designated as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC,
every year since the Department of State first made the
designation in 2000. USCIRF based this recommendation
on its comprehensive assessment of the situation for
religious minority communities, and also at times the
ill treatment of majority Buddhists, relative to international
human rights standards.
As part of its monitoring, USCIRF in 2016 commissioned
a research project to investigate religious
freedom conditions for Christian communities in
Burma. The research sought to investigate the facts and
causes of discrimination, violence, and other abuses
against Christians. The result of this research, called
“Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma,” is available
In seeking to shed light on the little-known
circumstances of Christians in Burma, USCIRF
acknowledged the serious humanitarian crisis faced by
Rohingya and other Muslims—and indeed all people
in Rakhine State. The deprivation of their rights—by
both government and societal actors—is one of the
most profound human rights tragedies of the 21st Century.
In recent years, some within and outside Burma
have argued the Rohingya situation has nothing to do
with religious freedom. Yet this viewpoint ignores the
fact that while Rohingya Muslims may not be targeted
entirely based on religion, they are singled out
as different and perceived as a threat because of their
religion and ethnicity.
While the lengthy history of the Rohingya Muslim
crisis is beyond the scope of this paper, an examination
of the marked deterioration of rights under the
previous government provides insight into ways
Burma’s government can address the crisis and the
international community can encourage and assist.
The following policy paper analyzes religious freedom conditions for Rohingya
Muslims from 2011, when President Thein Sein’s government
took office, to July 7, 2016, the date marking the
National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s
first 100 calendar days in office.
The new government notwithstanding, Burma’s
ongoing transition to democracy is imperiled
by previous governments’ repeated failures on
human rights, including religious freedom and tolerance.
The country also remains the scene of unrelenting
ethnic conflicts and pervasive discrimination against
religious and ethnic minorities.
Rohingya Muslims are at the epicenter of this ill
treatment: government-directed abuses and/or government
indifference to riots and mob violence against
Rohingya and other Muslims have killed hundreds,
displaced thousands, and destroyed hundreds of religious
properties, including religious sites, since 2012.
Burma’s transition, both between different
governing parties and to a more democratic form of
government, presents many priorities that require
urgent attention. In any society, competing interests
can cause tensions; whereas some disagreements
may snarl the legislative and policy process, others can turn
violent, particularly when persons or groups seek to elevate by force one ideology and/or faith over all others. In the case of the latter, political
or societal forces often appeal to sectarianism to achieve political ends or
amass more power. USCIRF has seen such political aspirations motivate and enable extremist and nationalist groups to target other religious communities,
leading to greater intolerance in society, including grave violations of religious freedom. Extremist and nationalist elements achieve this by stoking underlying
antipathies toward or divisions between religious communities. Ultimately, such political and societal drivers can prompt mass movements of people fleeing persecution.
In short, the Rohingya crisis exists not just because Rohingya Muslims in Burma are being denied their rights, including religious freedom; there also is a strategic
and malicious political dynamic at play, one that has not vanished simply because the 2015 elections are over. If the NLD government aspires to a true democratic
form of government that respects and protects universal human rights, it must take bold, decisive, and immediate steps to change the current trajectory for Rohingya Muslims. This includes: signing and ratifying the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; improving access to humanitarian aid in Rakhine State where
Rohingya Muslims and others are displaced, restricted from movement, or denied basic services; inviting the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit and allowing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to open a country office to
assess the human rights violations against all individuals in Rakhine State; ceasing the criminalization of the peaceful exercise or expression of religion or belief; and
doing away with discriminatory policies, practices, and laws – especially the
1982 Citizenship Law that marginalizes and excludes Rohingya Muslims. In addition, the government should consider ways to formally include Rohingya Muslims
in governing processes, such as by engaging them in the 21st Century Panglong discussion about national reconciliation.
The U.S. government, in turn, must continue to raise with Burma’s government concerns about Rohingya Muslims’ human rights. Efforts should include supporting
interfaith collaborations, in which Rohingya Muslims also participate, especially at the grassroots level; advocating for improved access to humanitarian aid in Rakhine State; encouraging religious freedom advocacy among non-traditional audiences, such as the
business community and the media; urging the government of Burma to cease punishing expression deemed blasphemous, defamatory of religion, or contemptuous
or insulting to religion; and using the term Rohingya, both publicly and privately, which respects the right of Rohingya Muslims to identify as they choose. Additionally,
in lieu of sanctions, the U.S. government should apply section 604(a) of the International Religious Freedom Act to deny visas to or admission into the
United States to individuals responsible for or known to have directly carried out particularly severe violations of religious freedom. Rohingya Muslims face a difficult day-to-day existence with little ability to honor their past, prosper in the present, or make plans for their future. They are suspended in time, largely unable to create a better life for themselves or their children. It is a moral imperative for the United States and the international community to impress upon Burma through every appropriate point of
leverage that neither time, nor the judgment of history, will reflect kindly on the new government if it chooses to procrastinate in addressing this ever-growing crisis.
The full report can be viewed by clicking here.