Burma: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report 2012

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U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom 2012 Annual Report 2012 Burma
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  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom2012 Annual Report31 COUNTRY CHAPTERS: COUNTRIES OF PARTICULAR CONCERNBurmaFINDINGS : The Burmese military is implicated in some of the world‘s worst human rights abuses, including rape, torture, ethnic cleansing, conscription of child soldiers, and particularly severe religiousfreedom violations. These abuses continued in the past reporting period, despite November 2010 electionsthat installed a new government and some initial reforms announced during 2011-2012. Religious groups,particularly ethnic minority Christians and Muslims and Buddhist monks suspected of engaging in anti-government activity, faced intrusive monitoring, arrest, mistreatment, destruction or desecration of property, severe restrictions on worship, education, and religious activities, and targeted violence. Monksare still imprisoned for participating in peaceful demonstrations in 2007, and the ban on independentProtestant ―house church‖ activities remains.In light of these continued systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations, USCIRF again recommends in2012 that Burma be designated as a ―c ountry of particular concern ‖ (CPC). The State Department hasdesignated Burma as a CPC since 1999.Religious freedom violations affect every religious group in Burma. Although the new government hasreleased prominent leaders of the 2007 demonstrations, Buddhist monks suspected of anti-governmentactivities have been detained in the past year. Most of the recent releases were conditional. U Gambira,head of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, has been twice detained by police because of his public criticismof the government and for unilaterally re-opening sealed monasteries. Muslims routinely experience strictcontrols on a wide range of religious activities, as well as government-sponsored societal violence. TheRohingya Muslim minority, in particular, is subject to systematic discrimination and a forced relocationprogram that has produced thousands of refugees. In ethnic minority areas, where low-intensity conflicthas been waged for decades, the Burmese military forcibly promotes Buddhism and targets Christianreligious groups for intimidation, forced labor, rape, and destruction of religious sites. Such tacticscontinued in the past year, particularly in Kachin and northern Shan states, where a large military operationbegan in the past reporting period. A 2008 regulation continues essentially to ban independent ―housechurch‖ religious venues throughout the country and Protestant religious leaders in Rangoon have beenpressured to sign pledges to stop meeting in unapproved venues. PRIORITY RECOMMENDATIONS : In the past year, the Burmese government has released hundredsof political and religious prisoners including Nobel laureate Aun San Suu Kyi, eased some Internet andmedia controls, signed a tentative cease-fire with the largest Karen ethnic group, and scheduledparliamentary by-elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD)party will be allowed to participate. These are important steps that have won praise from the United Statesand other governments. However, because religious freedom improvements and democratization areclosely linked in Burma, the U.S. government should not consider removing targeted sanctions until allpolitical prisoners are released, there is a nationwide ceasefire, and the new, freely-elected, parliament isallowed to reform laws limiting religious freedom, as well as associated rights of free speech, assembly,and association. In addition, the United States should not remove the CPC designation until the seriousreligious freedom violations experienced by Buddhist monks, Rohingya Muslims, and ethnic minorityChristians have ended completely. Any future U.S. assistance funds should be targeted to empower civilsociety groups focusing on public advocacy, religious harmony, democratic leadership, and legal training.Additional recommendations for U.S. policy toward Burma can be found at the end of this chapter.  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom2012 Annual Report32 Religious Freedom Conditions  Initial Reforms November 2010 elections installed a new government led by President Thein Sein, a formermilitary general, and a cabinet dominated by former generals and military officers from thedisbanded State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The elections were widelydiscredited, as the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) party, andseveral ethnic minority groups were not allowed to participate. However, in the past year, theThein Sein government has released hundreds of political and religious prisoners includingNobel laureate Aun San Sui Kyi, eased some Internet controls, signed a cease-fire with the Karenethnic group, and scheduled parliamentary by-elections in which Aun San Suu Kyi and the NLDwill be allowed to participate. In January 2012, the civilian government conditionally released UGambira, the head of the All-Burma Monks Alliance, and as many as 29 other monks. Inresponse, the United States and international community have increased their engagement withthe civilian government and the U.S. government announced the resumption of full diplomaticrelations. Despite these reforms, serious problems remain regarding religious freedom andrelated human rights. Ongoing Repression of Buddhists While ethnic minority Christians and Muslims have encountered the most long-term difficultiesin Burma, in the aftermath of peaceful anti-government demonstrations in 2007, the regimebegan systematically to repress Buddhist monks publicly critical of government policies andmonasteries viewed as epicenters of the protests. Hundreds of monks were arrested, defrocked,beaten, and forced to perform hard labor in prison. At least 30 deaths were reported, althoughsome experts say the actual number was much higher. At least 4,000 people, an unknownportion of whom were monks, were arrested during the crackdown, and between 500 and 1,000were believed to remain in detention months later. Many of the detained reportedly have beenmistreated or tortured. Given the lack of transparency in Burma, it is difficult to determine howmany people remain in prison or are missing. According to the Thailand-based AssistanceAssociation of Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), approximately 150 monks remain in prisonas of this date.Understanding the impo rtance of Buddhism in Burma‘s life and culture is critical to understanding the significance of the September 2007 protests and the government‘s harsh reaction. The monks broadened the scope of the initial protests and began calling for the releaseof all political prisoners and the initiation of a process leading to democratization in the country.As the protests broadened, the military ordered the crack down on the monk-led demonstrations.Government interference in Buddhist affairs predated the 2007 protests and continued in the pastreporting year, focusing on monks and ceremonies viewed as critical of the government.Members of the Buddhist sangha are subject to a strict code of conduct that is reportedlyenforced through criminal penalties. Monks are not allowed to preach political sermons, makepublic statements, or produce literature with views critical of government policies or the military.Monks are also prohibited from associating with or joining political parties or taking part in  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom2012 Annual Report33peaceful demonstrations or ceremonies viewed as political, such as commemorations of AungSang Suu Kyi or for the victims of the 2007 demonstrations. Military commanders retain jurisdiction to try Buddhist monks in military courts.In the year prior to the 2010 elections, government authorities closely monitored monasteriesviewed as focal points of anti-government activity and restricted usual religious practices inthese areas. Monks perceived to be protest organizers have been charged under vague national security provisions, including ―creating public alarm;‖ ―engaging in activities inconsistent withand detrimental to Buddhism ;‖ ― the deliberate and malicious . . . outraging of religious feelings ;‖and ―engaging in prohibited acts of speech intended for religious beliefs. ‖ In September 2010,authorities sentenced monk Ashin Uk Kong Sah to 15 years in prison for violating theElectronics Transactions Act, Press Act, and Section 505 B of Penal Code for writing ―no 2010election‖ along a highway. In December  2011, a monk was arrested for delivering speechesabout the need for further political reform.Monks and Buddhist laypeople arrested for conducting peaceful religious services on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi or to commemorate the victims of the 2007 demonstrations were detained,including four monks, U Chit Phay, U Aung SoeU Damathara, and U NandaraWai, andapproximately 50 members of the opposition National League for Democracy.The whereaboutsof the monks remain unknown.In February 2010, four members of the Tuesday Prayer Group, including Naw Ohn Hla, weresentenced to two years ‘ confinement each for ― disturbing public tranquility ‖ for allegedly offering alms to monks at Magwe monastery in Rangoon. The government said they acted with ―the intent t o incite public unrest. ‖ Naw Ohn Hla and her colleagues were released in May 2011. Despite its crackdown on monks who participated in the 2007 ―Saffron Revolution‖ and restrictions on perceived anti-government Buddhists, the military generally promotes TherevadaBuddhism, particularly in the ethnic minority areas, sometimes pressuring or offering economicinducements to encourage conversion. Throughout Burma‘s history, patronage of the Buddhist community was necessary to legitimize a government‘s hold on power. Military and civiliangovernment leaders have continued this practice, publicly participating in Buddhist rituals.Buddhist doctrine is an optional course taught in all government-run schools and daily prayer isrequired of all students; in some schools, children who are not Buddhist reportedly are allowed toleave the room during this time, but in others they are compelled to recite the prayer. Inaddition, the Burmese military builds pagodas and has destroyed religious venues and otherstructures in Christian and Muslim areas.  Active Repression of Religious Minorities Burma has experienced ongoing conflict since its independence in 1948. The Burmese militarydeals harshly with any group it perceives as a threat to its hold on power, especially ethnicminority groups whose religious affiliation is an identifying feature. In the past year, minorityreligious groups, especially Muslims and Christians, continued to face serious abuses of religiousfreedom and other human rights by the military. In some localities, military commanders haveconscripted members of ethnic and religious minorities against their will for forced labor. Those  U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom2012 Annual Report34who refuse conscription are threatened with criminal prosecution or fined and there are crediblereports in the past of death and beatings of those who refused conscription.Christians and Muslims have been forced to destroy mosques, churches, and graveyards and to serve as military porters. They reportedly have also been forced to ―donate‖ labor to build and maintain Buddhist pagodas and monasteries. There continue to be credible reports thatgovernment officials compelled people to donate money, food, or materials to state-sponsoredprojects to build, renovate, or maintain Buddhist religious shrines or monuments. In addition,women from the Chin minority report that the military abducted them from church services andsubjected them to rape and sex trafficking.  Burmese and Rohingya Muslims Muslims in Rakhine (Arakan) state, and particularly those of the Rohingya minority group,continued to experience the most severe forms of legal, economic, religious, educational, andsocial discrimination. The government denies citizenship to Rohingyas because their ancestorsallegedly did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule. Approximately800,000 Rohingya live in Burma, concentrated mostly in the cities of Maungdaw, Buthidaung,Akyab, Rathedaung, and Kyauktaw.Without citizenship, Rohingyas lack access to secondary education in state-run schools, cannotbe issued government identification cards (essential to receive government benefits), and facerestrictions on freedoms of religion, association, and movement. Refugees living in Bangladeshreport that some Rohingya are prevented from owning property, residing in certain townships, orserving as government officials. Since 1988, the government reportedly has severely restrictedMuslim marriage ceremonies in certain villages of Rakhine (Arakan) state. Efforts to lift thisrestriction have failed. Muslims also report difficulties in obtaining birth certificates fornewborns, particularly in the city of Sittwe.Police often restricted the number of Muslims who could gather in one place. In some places,Muslims were only allowed to gather for worship and religious training during major Muslimholidays.   Police and border guards also continued inspections of Muslim mosques in Rakhinestate; if a mosque cannot show a valid building permit, the venue can be ordered closed ordestroyed. The government has, in recent years, ordered the destructions of mosques, religiouscenters, and schools. During the current reporting period, the Burmese military maintained ac ampaign to create ― Muslim F ree Areas‖ in parts of Rakhine (Arakan) state. Militarycommanders have closed mosques and madrassas , stoked ethnic violence, and built pagodas inareas without a Buddhist presence, often with forced labor. Refugees report that the militarycontinues to entice conversion to Buddhism by offering charity, bribes, or promises of jobs orschooling for Muslim children.The Burmese military has instigated riots against ethnic minority Muslims in the past, targetingboth Rohingya and the Chinese Pathay Muslim groups.An estimated 300,000 Muslim Rohingya live in refugee camps in Bangladesh, Thailand, andother Southeast Asian countries. They often live in squalid conditions and face discrimination,
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