Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Suspended in time: The ongoing persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma


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

at www.uscirf.gov.

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.




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