Myanmar: Religious Tensions Remain


Myanmar: Religious Tensions Remain

19 Mar 2015

As ethnic and religious tensions in Myanmar continue, the United Nations reports on a worrying situation in the country which shows no sign of abating. The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics looks at the key points.

In January 2015 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, visited the country for a second time, and published a  report on her findings on 9 March 2015. 

The situation in Rakhine State remains "dire".

During the presentation of her report to the Human Rights Council on 16 March 2015, Yanghee Lee summed up her latest visit to Myanmar and her findings by saying that the situation in Rakhine State in the country remained "dire" and the use of the term ' Rohingya' continued to be met with strong resistance.

In response to the report, the Myanmar representative on the Council disagreed with many of the findings, including on the lack of progress made in Rakhine State, but agreed that Myanmar did not recognise the term Rohingya.

The assessment made by the special rapporteur acknowledged that Myanmar has undergone some far-reaching changes but there are signs of backtracking by the government, with increasing concerns over ethnic and religious discrimination.

The Centre on Religion & Geopolitics has previously published  reports on Myanmar, which have highlighted the plight of the Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine state, rising Buddhist nationalism and attacks in other parts of the country over ethnicity.

This is a crucial year for Myanmar, with an election due in the autumn and a number of political issues are at stake, including a series of bills being put before Parliament, two of which have drawn particular criticism from a number of human rights and religious groups: the religious conversion bill and the Buddhist women's special marriage bill.

Additionally, the government announced in February 2015 that it would revoke temporary identification cards (white cards) for minorities in the country, which gave them temporary citizenship. The Rohingya Muslim community holds the majority of these cards, and this has been seen as further discrimination against the minority religion, with continuing reports of the Rohingya fleeing from Myanmar to neighbouring countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, where they have been subjected still further to human trafficking.

A lack of leadership to address discrimination against religious minorities.

The Rapporteur highlights her concerns at the lack of comprehensive policies and leadership shown in the country to address discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities and urges the government to create a legal and policy framework to address inter-communal tension and violence. The report says the Rapporteur was disturbed at the progress of four bills on religious conversions, inter-faith marriage, monogamy and population control. 

Focusing particularly on the religious conversion bill, which establishes a state-regulated system for religious conversion, the report says that this is inconsistent with the right to freedom of religion and that penalties in the bill for "insulting religion" are vague and could discriminate against religious minorities.

The Rapporteur found that tensions and violence between religious communities remains a significant problem and the state needs to find ways to address this through education and reconciliation. The Rapporteur did find that in the town of Lashio, which witnessed violence between a number of religious communities in May 2013, there was now cooperation between local authorities and a commitment from inter-religious leaders to work together to maintain peace.

A large part of the Rapporteur's report looks at Rakhine State, which saw violence between Buddhist nationalists and Rohingya Muslims in June 2012. The Rapporteur visited a number of camps for people displaced by the violence in 2012, including those which house the Rohingya Muslims alone and those that house Buddhists. Following discussions with those in the local community, the Rapporteur reports that the root cause of violence in Rakhine State was under-development and conditions of poverty. She also points out that there has been little improvement in these conditions since her previous visit in July 2014.

Rohingya Muslims are kept in camps for their own security.

On a visit to the Myebon Township Muslim Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp, which houses the Rohingya during their citizenship verification process, the Rapporteur was concerned over the "abysmal" conditions of those in held in the camps, and was disturbed to hear that the Rohingya Muslims were being kept in the camp for their own security.

The report states that the international issues around Rakhine State are growing, with the mainly Rohingya community generating large numbers of asylum seekers, escaping from the camps in Myanmar and Bangladesh and travelling to Malaysia and Thailand. In turn these asylum seekers have faced people smuggling and trafficking, with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reporting that around 53,000 people travelled on smuggling boats to Malaysia and Thailand between January and November 2014.

The report also looks at the issues around the draft Rakhine Action Plan being developed by the government, which reportedly includes a verification process for the Rohingya popultaion. The Rapporteur remains concerned about the provisions in the plan.

One issue that was particularly prominent in the Rapporteur's visit to Rakhine State earlier this year, which was reported widely in the media following the outspoken words of the Buddhist nationalist monk U Wirathu, is the term Rohingya. The Rapporteur again heard from both government and Rakhine Buddhist representatives that the term Rohingya has no historical or legal basis - with the government insisting that persons identifying as Rohingya be classified as Bengali, linking their ethnic origins to Bangladesh.

The report stresses that the Rohingya have a right to self-identification and the focus on the term Rohingya is distracting away from what is a serious human rights issue. Additionally, the Rapporteur found there were different perceptions of the Rohingya, the Rakhine Buddhist population say that the international community only support the Rohingya, but the Rapporteur reports that the international community has assisted both the Rohingya and the Buddhist community. 

Key Conclusions
  • Since 2011, Myanmar has undergone far-reaching changes that have affected most aspects of life in the country. However, as the Special Rapporteur warned in her previous report, there continue to be signs of backtracking by the government. During her visit the Special Rapporteur observed a growing atmosphere of fear, distrust and hostility. One example of this was the sexist personal attacks that she received from a nationalist Buddhist monk at the end of her visit. In Rakhine State the atmosphere between communities is hostile, with the government justifying the confinement of many Muslims in camps as necessary for their protection. The four 'race and religion' bills currently before parliament will hinder Myanmar from developing into a pluralist society and instead will cement discriminatory attitudes and policies.
  • The government should focus on creating an empowered population, including the youth and women, to ensure that a new generation can work together to create a prosperous and stable country and reverse the current slide towards extreme nationalism, religious hatred and conflict.
Key Recommendations
  • Take urgent steps to address escalating extremist nationalist sentiment in the country by ensuring senior government officials speak out against instances of hate speech, and ensure the investigation of the extent of the harm caused to persons as a result of hate speech and incitement to violence and ensure that perpetrators are held to account.
  • Revise or withdraw the four 'race and religion' bills – the Population Control Healthcare Bill, the Bill Relating to the Practice of Monogamy, the Bill on Religious Conversion, and the Myanmar Buddhist Women's Special Marriage Bill - which do not meet international human rights standards and risk entrenching discrimination against women and minorities.
  • Resolve the citizenship status of habitual residents in Myanmar, including "white card" holders, and ensure that they have equal access to citizenship through a non-discriminatory process.
  • Amend the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship Law to bring it into line with international standards. In particular, remove any provisions that provide for the granting of citizenship on the basis of ethnicity or race.
  • Ensure that the Rakhine State Action Plan is consistent with international standards and does not include measures that would subject Rohingyas to arbitrary detention or deportation.
  • Respect the right of Rohingyas' to self-identification according to international human rights law including in the citizenship verification process.

The report can be read in full here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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