Burma is experiencing a serious identity crisis. Years of autarkic and isolated military rule have left the country ill-equipped to handle the kind of dramatic and rapid political makeover it is presently undergoing. This transition has created two species of challenge unfamiliar to Burma: the outward challenge of ascertaining where it fits in the collective scheme of neighboring nations and the broader global community, and the inward challenge of equitably providing and protecting the rights and freedoms of all Burmese.
But instead of embracing its religiously pluralistic, multiethnic, and multicultural past as part of this quest for a new identity, some of Burma’s political and religious leaders have instead elevated the country’s majority Buddhist population. This elevation has emerged not only as discriminatory against non-Buddhist Burmese, but as openly hostile and even violent toward them as well.
In August, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) visited Burma to investigate violations of religious freedom and instances of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities including Rohingya and other Muslims as well as Christians. USCIRF recently released the full report from this trip. As a member of the commission’s delegation, I heard firsthand from non-Buddhist Burmese who have experienced intolerance on a scope and scale that significantly impacts their everyday lives. Regrettably, although the country has opened up in other areas, those who wish to freely practice their faith increasingly face discrimination and intolerance—the likes of which seriously threatens the future of Burma’s reform process.
The actions taken by some of Burma’s leaders against its minority religious population are largely motivated by fears that the country is at risk of being overrun by Islam. Reaction to this perceived threat has superseded Burma’s constitutionally protected right to freedom of religion and belief, and is fueling acts of religious-based violence. This was the case in the city of Mandalay this past July, in Meiktila in March of 2013, and during the outbreak of violence between Rohingya Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists that occurred in June and October of 2012.
This violence against religious minorities has also assumed less direct forms. In Chin State, for instance, uncertainty about government restrictions has impeded the construction of new religious structures. The practice of inducing poor Chin families to send their Christian children to “NaTaLa” schools operated by Buddhist monks has resulted in what Chin representatives described to USCIRF as “a subtle policy of forced assimilation” in which religious indoctrination and conversion act as coercive implements. Rohingya Muslims described how they cannot pray collectively or preach their religious teachings, violations compounded by the appalling discrimination and multifaceted deprivation of basic rights their community confronts. Still other Muslims spoke of the prejudicial issuing of identification documents that deem them non-Burmese, treatment faced by no other religious group. This discrimination against all non-Buddhists will become further entrenched should proposed legislation to restrict religious conversion, marriage, and births pass in the Burmese parliament.
The intersection of politics and religion in Burma is particularly troubling with respect to the general elections scheduled by the Union Election Commission for 2015. Four years ago this month, Burma held its first general elections in 20 years. The handover from the country’s military regime to a nominally civilian government was supposed to signify a changing of the guard, Burma’s figurative turning over of a new leaf. Five years between general elections is not much time to undo decades of repressive military rule, peacefully reconcile the world’s longest running civil war, and build the foundations of a rights-respecting democratic government. A few false starts are to be expected. Moreover, elections can be a messy business—a truism that applies anywhere in the world. But the worsening situation for freedom of religion or belief in Burma that USCIRF discovered during its trip is more than a misstep. The exploitation and fracturing of religious cleavages for political gain—an unfortunate reality in Burma’s current political climate—is heightening hatred and intolerance at a time when a cohesive identity is crucial to the country’s future.
This religious fracturing, meanwhile, threatens to derail other crucial reforms as well. Burma’s rich religious and ethnic diversity has the makings of a pluralistic, inclusive society that could serve as an important anchor for democracy in the region. Some in Burma already recognize this reality, and are working to chart a positive course. More must be done, however, by both the Burmese and the international community to protect freedom of religion or belief in Burma as a touchstone for improved economic and social wellbeing, factors often linked to the presence of religious freedom. If Burma’s transformation continues to trend toward exclusion, intolerance, and hatred against religious and ethnic minorities, especially Rohinyga Muslims, the country will have squandered its chance to shape a new path forward that genuinely prioritizes democratic principles and human rights, including freedom of religion.
Disclaimer: This paper was prepared and written in the author's personal capacity. The views expressed herein are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or stance of USCIRF.