Attacks on Muslim communities were cited in the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2013 Annual Report as being among the primary reasons that Myanmar continues to be designated by the US State Department as a “country of particular concern” in the area of religious freedom.
According to the report, Muslims were not alone in suffering ill treatment based on their religious beliefs.
“During the reporting period (January 2012 to January 2013) … serious abuses against mainly Christian civilians occurred during military interventions in Kachin State,” the report said, while “Buddhist monks suspected of anti-government activities were also detained and removed from their pagodas.”
According to a 2012 report by Tomas Quintana, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, other forms of oppression aimed at Kachin and Chin Christians included “restrictions on the building of places of worship, destruction of religious venues and artifacts … and the policy of coerced conversions to Buddhism”.
Such statements seem to contradict perceptions that, since the 2010 election, Myanmar has been moving toward a more democratic system in which human rights abuses are becoming a thing of the past.
Freedom of religion is considered one of the most basic of human rights, and its protection is enshrined in Article 34 of Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, which states that “every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion”.
While Article 361 notes that the government “recognises the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union”, Article 363 “also recognises Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union”.
Despite the wide international attention given to religious conflict in the country, U Aung Naing, a member of the Yangon-based Interfaith Dialogue Organisation, said Myanmar is “better than many other countries” when it comes to religious freedom.
“Although Buddhism is the dominant belief, the government gives equal freedom to all religions. This is a good policy because conflicts can be very hard to control if one religion is favoured over others,” he said.
He said conflict often starts when a minority religion is made to fear the loss of its identity.
“When a fearful minority tries to assert its identity, the majority feels threatened and starts discriminating against the minority,” U Aung Naing said.
The best approach, he said, was for all people to live according to the teachings of their own religion and avoid forcing their beliefs on others.
“If people stop trying to convert others to their own religion, many problems will be solved,” he said.
Daw Yamin Aung, a Muslim living in Yangon’s Insein township, agreed that religion should be approached on a personal level and should not be politicised or used as a means to discriminate against others.
“Each person is unique, and even people in the same family can have different beliefs, but we can negotiate and live together,” she said. “So why can’t people of different religions live together in the same community?”
She also disagreed with the assessment that Myanmar was failing in the area of religious freedom.
“If a person is allowed to worship or pursue activities according to their religious beliefs, this is freedom. I think we have this now in Myanmar. I don’t know of any restrictions, and I don’t think the government is attacking the basic teachings of my religion,” she said.
Baptist U Saw George Shey said he felt there were some restrictions on freedom of religion in Myanmar, but for the most part people were able worship as they liked within their own churches, monasteries, mosques and temples.
“Religious organisations are required to get permission from the Ministry of Religious Affairs when they want to hold activities, and the government will not interfere with these activities if they have been informed,” he said.
As an example, last week tens of thousands of Baptists converged on Yangon to celebrate the 200th anniversary of American missionary Adinoram Judson’s arrival in Myanmar. Such a gathering of Christians would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
Although there were reports that trains carrying Kachin Baptists from Myitkyina to Yangon were pelted with rocks by unknown attackers, the government did not interfere with the four-day commemoration.
Ko Saw Ehe Lin, an ethnic Kayin who travelled from his home state to Yangon for the event, said he felt free to celebrate the anniversary and had not even considered the issue of religious freedom.
“Myanmar is our country. We were born here and live here. The choice of religion is our right, and most people in the country follow the religion of their parents. It has nothing to do with government restrictions,” he said.
“We have never felt that we lacked freedom of religion. We have always been able to pursue our religious activities. Yet people outside the country, especially academics, sometimes try to create controversy by writing about lack of religious freedom in Myanmar.”
But U Hla Myo, president of the Dhamma Yaung Chi Buddhist organisation, said that although Buddhism is the main religion in the country, it often face government restrictions.
“People from other religions think the government does not restrict Buddhism because it’s the dominant religion, but this is not true. Sometimes Buddhism faces greater restrictions than others. For example, it was very difficult to hold sermons following the 2007 Saffron Revolution,” he said.
U Hla Myo added that the government is correct in targeting those who “try to change or add new concepts to Theravada Buddhism”.
He cited the case of U Nyanna, who in 2012 was sentenced to 20 years in prison for starting the Moe Pya religious group and preaching an unorthodox version of Buddhism.
The case has been highlighted by the Asian Human Rights Commission, which believes that U Nyanna has been persecuted for “peaceful practice of his faith”. An online petition on the commission’s website (www.humanrights.asia/countries/burma) calls for “revision or revocation of laws in Burma that deny religious freedom”.
But U Hla Myo disagreed with the commission’s assessment: “U Nyanna tried to change the basic teachings of the Buddha and propagate a new form of Buddhism. We consider this to be misuse of freedom of religion because he tried to insult the core of original Theravada Buddhism.”
This difference in views highlights the confusion over concepts like religious freedom and interfaith dialogue. One problem, according to U Aung Myo Min, executive director of Equality Myanmar, is that elite-level discussions are not trickling down to the grassroots level.
“Now religious leaders are promoting interfaith dialogue, which is a good sign for peace. But this discussion should occur not only at the top level but also in the community, where conflicts often arise. Most people do not understand the meaning of interfaith dialogue,” he said.
He added that such general understanding was essential for the stability of Myanmar.
“If there is lack of harmony between religions, it will benefit the dictators. While people are fighting over power, it ensures a doomed future for the country,” he said.
“When the people lose freedom of religion, which strengthens their spirits and souls, the development of their country is disturbed. A scenario of hatred or pessimism against diversity will end in destruction. People in our country need to be made aware of this point.”