There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including the continued detention and incarceration of Buddhist monks throughout the country, the arrest of Muslims in the broader Rangoon area for unauthorized teaching as well as praying in living quarters, and the interrogation and harassment of Baptists in Kachin State.
The government continued its efforts to exert control over the Buddhist clergy (Sangha). It tried Sangha members for “activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism” and imposed on the Sangha a code of conduct enforced by criminal penalties. The government continued the detention, imprisonment, and interrogation of politically active Buddhist monks. In prison, some monks were defrocked and treated as laypersons. In general they were not allowed to shave their heads and were not given food compatible with the monastic code, which dictates that monks should not eat after noon. They often were beaten and forced to do hard labor.
According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP), at the end of the year an estimated 130 monks remained in prison, many of them arrested after the September 2007 peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations. During the year, some of the monks, as well as other political prisoners, remained in remote jails away from their family members, limiting their access to basic necessities and medicines that visiting relatives generally provided.
Although authorities appear to have moved away from a campaign of forced conversion, there continued to be evidence that other means were being used to entice non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism. Chin Christians reported that local authorities operated a high school that only Buddhist students could attend and promised government jobs to the graduates. Christians had to convert to Buddhism to attend the school. An exiled Chin human rights group claimed local government officials placed the children of Chin Christians in Buddhist monasteries, where they were given religious instruction and converted to Buddhism without their parents’ knowledge or consent. Reports suggested that the government also sought to induce members of the Naga ethnic group in Sagaing Division to convert to Buddhism through similar means. During the year there were no reports of forced religious conversions.
The government selectively enforced legal restrictions on religious freedom. Religious organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The government’s pervasive internal security apparatus imposed implicit restrictions on collective and individual worship through infiltrating and monitoring meetings and activities of virtually all organizations.
In practice, authorities restricted the quantity of imported Bibles and Qur’ans, although individuals continued to bring them into the country in small quantities for personal use. There were no reports that authorities confiscated Bibles or Qur’ans at border entry points.
Government censors continued to enforce restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Qur’an, and other Christian and Islamic texts. The most onerous restriction was a list of more than 100 prohibited words censors would not allow in Christian or Islamic literature, forbidden as “indigenous terms” or derived from the Pali language long used in Buddhist literature. Some Christian and Islamic groups in the country have used these words since the colonial period. In addition censors sometimes objected to passages of the Bible’s Old Testament and the Qur’an that they interpreted as endorsing violence against nonbelievers.
Officials have occasionally allowed local printing or photocopying of limited quantities of religious materials, including the Qur’an (with the notation that they are for private use only), in indigenous languages without approval by government censors.
In addition to religious publications, the government on occasion subjected sermons, ceremonies, and festivals to censorship and other controls, and at times interfered with religious gatherings. There were reports that Islamic lectures required prior written permission from ward, township, police, district, and division level authorities. Law enforcement reportedly questioned participants on the nature of the lecture both before and after the lecture.
Some Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs. However, a representative of the Islamic community reported the closure of Islamic madrassahs operating as ad-hoc mosques in Thaketa township. Some Christian schools did not register with the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), a group representing 14 Christian denominations, but were able to conduct affairs without government interference. The government allowed some members of foreign religious groups to enter the country to provide humanitarian assistance, as it did after Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
Authorities continued to restrict gatherings to celebrate traditional Christian and Islamic holidays. In Chin State, authorities reportedly eased some restrictions but continued to require churches to submit requests for religious celebrations at least one month in advance. Authorities generally approved the requests. In satellite towns surrounding Rangoon, Muslims were allowed to gather for worship and religious training only during major Muslim holidays. During the year, some district and township administration officials in Arakan state banned mosques’ use of loudspeakers for the Azan (call to prayer).
The government continued to discriminate against minority religious groups, restricting educational activities, proselytizing, and restoration or construction of churches and mosques.
In most regions, Christian and Islamic groups that sought to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations were able to do so only with informal approval from local authorities. When local authorities or conditions changed, some approvals were rescinded and, in some cases, authorities demolished existing religious buildings. Construction on the Sufi Shahul Hamid Nagori Flag Post and Mosque in Insein was stopped and the structures were subsequently torn down after authorities claimed that the construction exceeded the scope of the permits; the city government then filed criminal suits against the trustees of the mosque. Formal requests often encountered long delays, generally were denied, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed by a more senior authority.
It remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to build new or repair existing mosques, although internal maintenance was allowed in some cases. In Arakan State, government officials reportedly denied permits for the renovation of mosques with one exception: a large mosque in Maung Daw Township near the border with Bangladesh. Historic mosques in Mawlamyine, Mon State and Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as other areas, continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance. A number of restrictions were in place on the construction or renovation of mosques and religious schools in northern Rakhine State. According to a representative of an Islamic association, local authorities in Bago confiscated an ancient Muslim cemetery. The military government completely banned all religious services at the cemetery in 2005 and destroyed other parts of the cemetery between 2002 and 2010.
The roof repair of a Rangoon mosque became the center of controversy after the Yangon City Development Committee forced the mosque to suspend work. Rangoon Mayor and USDP candidate Aung Thein Linn allegedly approved the renovation project after the Muslim community agreed to support him in the elections. However, authorities revoked the permit after the Buddhist community allegedly sent a letter of protest to the Union Election Commission in Naypyitaw. At year’s end, the mosque was still without a roof.
Christian groups reported greater ease in obtaining permission to buy land or build new churches during the year. In some cases authorities continued to deny permission to build, asserting that applicants had violated various aspects of Burma’s complex land laws. In some areas permission to repair existing places of worship was easier to acquire.
The government openly supported Buddhist seminaries and permitted them to construct large campuses. Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty in obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls.
Government authorities continued to prohibit Christian clergy from proselytizing in some areas. Christian groups reported that authorities sometimes refused residency permits for Christian ministers attempting to move to new townships. They indicated this was not a widespread practice, but depended on the individual community and local authority. Nonetheless, Christian groups reported that church membership increased, even in predominantly Buddhist regions.
Muslims across the country, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, often were required to obtain permission from township authorities to leave their home towns. Authorities often denied Rohingya and other Muslims living in Rakhine State permission to travel for any purpose; however, permission was sometimes obtained through bribery. Muslims in other regions were granted more freedom to travel, but still faced restrictions. For example, Rohingyas living in Rangoon needed permission from immigration authorities to travel into and out of Rakhine State.
Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination. There were reports that Buddhist physicians would not provide Muslims the endorsement required by the Ministry of Health that permits Muslims to travel outside Rakhine State to seek advanced medical treatment.
The government denied citizenship status to Rohingyas, claiming that their ancestors did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as the 1982 citizenship law required. The Rohingyas asserted that their presence in the area predates the British arrival by several centuries. In November 2008 the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women urged the government to review its citizenship law. In February 2010 the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar visited the country and noted discrimination against Muslims. Many of the approximately 28,500 Rohingya Muslims registered in two refugee camps in Bangladesh and the estimated 200,000 Rohingya Muslims living outside those camps, also in Bangladesh, refused to return to the country because they feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution.
Essentially treated as illegal foreigners, Rohingyas were not issued Foreigner Registration Cards (FRCs). Since they also were not generally eligible for NRCs, Rohingyas have been commonly referred to as “stateless.” In the run-up to national elections in November 2010, the government issued Temporary Registration Cards (TRCs) to residents in northern Rakhine State; the majority of them are Rohingyas. The issuance of TRCs was primarily done, it appears, to allow Rohingyas participation in the elections. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) worked with approximately 750,000 residents of Rakhine State who did not hold citizenship in the country. At the end of the reporting period, the UNHCR (quoting government estimates) indicated that 85 percent of eligible residents (637,500 stateless persons) over the age of 10 possessed TRCs. The UNHCR noted that according to information from individuals in northern Rakhine State, many individuals issued TRCs were actually only given a TRC number and no document. The UNHCR also assisted Rohingyas with education, health, infrastructure, water and sanitation, and agriculture.
Without citizenship status Rohingyas did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Those Muslim students from Rakhine State who completed high school were not permitted to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar Muslim university students who did not possess NRCs from graduating. These students were permitted to attend classes and sit for examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they claimed a “foreign” ethnic minority affiliation. Rohingyas also were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples needed also to obtain government permission to marry and faced restrictions on the number of children they could have. Muslim newcomers were not allowed to buy property or reside in Thandwe, Rakhine State, and authorities prevented Muslims from living in the state’s Gwa or Taungup areas.
The government allowed members of all religious groups to establish and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries and to travel abroad for religious purposes. These links were subject to restrictive passport and visa issuance practices, foreign exchange controls, and government monitoring, which extended to all international activities by all citizens regardless of religion. The government sometimes expedited its burdensome passport issuance procedures during the year for Muslims making the Hajj or for Buddhists going on pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, India. Although approximately 500 Muslims from Burma participated in the Hajj during the year, there were allegations of corruption in the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ expedited process. An estimated 2,000 Buddhists from the country made pilgrimages to Bodhgaya.
The SMNC and Ministry of Religion also subjected the Sangha to special restrictions on freedom of expression and association. Members of the Sangha were not allowed to preach sermons pertaining to politics. Religious lectures that reflected political views often drew criticism or censure from the SMNC and Ministry of Religion. In February the SMNC banned Ashin Pyinna Thiha, aka Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw, the Abbot of Sardu Pariyatti Monastery, from giving sermons for a year because the SMNC had deemed his previous sermons too political. In December, after he met with U.S. Secretary of State Clinton, the abbot received a letter from the State Sangha calling for his dismissal from Sardu Pariyatti Monastery. The letter cited the abbot’s September speech at the headquarters of the pro-democratic opposition party the National League for Democracy as the reason for his dismissal. The government prohibited all clergy from being members of any political party and electoral law bars them from participating in political activity and voting in the elections.
During the year, authorities allowed Naw Ohn Hla, the leader of a group of Buddhist laypersons known as the Tuesday Prayer Group, greater latitude to conduct prayer meetings, although they prevented her group from participating in a September street march protesting construction of the Myitsone Dam.
State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying homage to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing ostensibly voluntary “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published books on Buddhist religious instruction.
The government discouraged Muslims from enlisting in the military and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspired to promotion beyond the rank of major were encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism. Some Muslims who wished to join the military reportedly had to list “Buddhist” as their religion on their applications, although they were not required to convert.