Myanmar: No Religious Liberty in an Unequal Milieu

Myanmar: No Religious Liberty in an Unequal Milieu

By Farzana Mahmood
Originally posted by the online journal of BYU Law: International Center for Religion Studies. Reposted with writer’s permission.

The conditions of religious minorities in Myanmar especially, Christians (6.2 percent, particularly Chin, Kachin, Karen people), Muslims (4.3 percent, Rohingya, Malay), and Hindus (0.5 percent, mainly Burmese Indians) deteriorated with the military coup in 1962. During the successive five brutal decades following the coup, the military exploited the religious and ethnic diversity of the country and ruled by dividing the communities, pitting Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims against each other.

However, with the onset of civilian governments in 2011, the conditions of the religious and ethnic minorities in the country failed to improve. In 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim minorities of the Rakhine state fled Myanmar to Bangladesh when the military started destroying and burning houses, killing Rohingyas, and raping their women.

Persecution of Religious Minorities

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding report of 2019, stated that the ethnic and religious minorities of Myanmar have been subjected to persecution, marginalization, and brutality by the army. The persecution of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar results from the actions, practices, and policies of the military rulers and governments that have inflicted and tolerated violations of fundamental rights, including religious freedom.

The rights of religious minorities to practice or manifest their religious beliefs have been compromised in Myanmar despite its constitutional obligation to religious liberty and non-discrimination. Religious minorities have been subjected to systematic and institutionalized discrimination and persecution, largely attributable to the discriminatory constitutional provisions privileging the majority Buddhists and exclusionary citizenship laws.

The Constitution of Myanmar

The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar does not endorse any state religion. It articulates that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and other Constitutional provisions (Section 34). The Constitution further stipulates under section 348 that the Union shall not discriminate against any citizen of Myanmar based on race, birth, religion, official position, status, culture, sex, or wealth.

Nonetheless, section 361 articulates that the Union recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens. However, section 362 of the Constitution recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as religions existing in the Union, and under section 363, the Union may assist and protect the religions it recognizes. Section 364 further states that any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity, or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to the objectives of the Constitution.

State Endorsement of Buddhism

Dominant literature reveals that in the public discourse, Buddhism has been closely associated with the state, and other religions are methodically marginalized. Active state promotion of Theravada Buddhism over other religions together with oppression against the ethnic and religious minorities has contributed to making equality and religious liberty mere rhetoric.

Reportedly, Christian and Muslim communities face trouble in obtaining permission to repair existing places of worship or in building new ones. Religious communities that register with government authorities are entitled to practice and manifest their religions, but the government imposes restrictions on the religious activities of minority groups. Only registered religions are entitled to buy or sell property or to open bank accounts, and leaders of registered religious groups have more freedom to travel than leaders of unrecognized organizations. Government officials only occasionally allow local printing or photocopying of copies of minority groups’ religious texts and materials. Conversion of religious minorities to the majority religion through coercion, bribes, or threats is not uncommon.

Moreover, there exist several laws and policies that violate the Constitutional guarantee of equality and freedom of religion or belief in favour of the religion of the majority. These include the 1982 Citizenship Law (as amended in 1997) and the Citizenship procedures of 1983, the Buddhist Women Special Marriage Law (Interfaith Marriage Law) 2015, and the Law Concerning Religious Conversion, 2015.

The Buddhist Women Special Marriage Law regulates the marriages of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men, making it difficult for a Buddhist woman to marry a non-Buddhist man, and the Religious Conversion Law requires that a citizen who wishes to change his/her religion must obtain approval from the Registration Board to complete conversion.

Citizenship Rights of Ethnic and Religious Minorities

The Citizenship Law created a hierarchy of citizenship categories (full citizen, associate citizen, and naturalized citizen) that, as commentators observe, effectively institutes first-class and second-class citizens. Full citizens are the indigenous races and descendants of residents who lived in Myanmar prior to 1823 or were born to parents who were citizens at the time of birth. Associate citizens are persons who acquired citizenship through the 1948 Union Citizenship Law, and naturalized citizens are those who lived in Myanmar before 1948 and applied for citizenship after 1982. Myanmar recognizes 135 distinct ethnic groups; the Rohingya are not one of them. Due to this discriminatory characterization of citizenship, the members of races considered as indigenous by the state receive privileges from the state over the other two categories. According to several studies and reports, there are “significant differences between the perceptions of Buddhist and non-Buddhist residents toward the relationship between religion and citizenship.”

Bhargava argues that citizenship rights include physical security, a minimum of material well-being, and a private sphere with which others ought not to interfere. Additionally, citizenship rights include the recognition of citizens as equal participants in the public domain [1]. The resources accorded with citizenship rights enable a dignified life for everyone where discrimination based on religion is prohibited. Ensuring citizenship rights for religious and ethnic minorities is integral to guarantee their rights to manifest and disseminate their religion freely.

In Myanmar, government-issued identification cards for citizens also identifies religious affiliation, and citizens are required to indicate their religion on official application forms, including passports. These requirements come in the wake of oppressing religious and ethnic minorities violating not only their right to equality and religious freedom, but also other rights guaranteed in the Constitution.

The right to religious liberty does not exist in singularity; it is interrelated and intertwined with economic, civil and political, social, cultural, and other human rights which are inherent to all human beings. Freedom of religion or belief is closely associated with the right to life, liberty, freedom of association, and expression, hence religious liberty cannot be promoted in the absence of these associated rights. Issues of freedom of religion or belief must also be considered in the broader context of governance and the rule of law. Empirical data shows that denying religious freedom increases conflict and hostility, leads to restrictions on civil and political rights, hinders democracy and stability, and breeds violent extremism.

The 2021 Military Coup in Myanmar

The military coup of February 2021 in Myanmar is of great concern not only for neighboring countries but also for human rights activists across the globe. The coup marks the end of democratic rule, which is anticipated to be even more difficult for Rohingya Muslims and other religious and ethnic minority groups to assert their rights. Coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, is infamous for his role in the harsh persecutions of the Rohingya, and he is highly likely to generate even more oppression and persecutions against religious and ethnic minorities. In the absence of democracy and citizenship rights, promises of the right to freedom of expression and movement, the right to life and liberty, religious freedom, the right to dignity, and non-discrimination are bound to be a mere illusion in Myanmar.

Farzana Mahmood is an advocate of Bangladesh Supreme Court and one of the co-founders and Executive Director of Bangladesh Manobadhikar O Poribesh Andolon Foundation (BAMAPA), an NGO dedicated to uphold and promote the basic human rights and environment rights of the peoples of the Bangladesh

[1] Rajeev Bhargava, Is Secularism a Value in Itself in Pluralism and Equality-Values in Indian Society and Politics edited by Imtiaz Ahmed, Partha S. Ghosh, Helmut Reifeld, Sage Publications Delhi 2000.