There were reports of abuses of religious freedom, including reports of imprisonment and detention. There were also reports of sexual violence by Burmese army officials in houses of worship in ethnic minority areas. The government did not hold these officials accountable. In May a Burmese news source reported the gang-rape and prolonged torture of a Christian woman in the sanctuary of a church near the Kachin-China border town of Pan Wa, near the planned site of the Chipwi hydropower dam on the May Kha River. According to a Kachin women’s organization, about 10 soldiers beat, stabbed, and raped the woman over a period of three days without penalty. Kachin-based religious organizations reported the arrest and abuse of religious leaders, particularly the late October arrest and physical abuse of two pastors in Mongo township, located between Shan and Kachin States.
There were credible allegations of the involvement of local border security authorities known as the Nasaka, a security arm of the Ministry of Border Affairs, in the burning of villages during the protracted period of communal unrest in Rakhine State. There were also credible reports of Rohingya being arbitrarily detained in local police stations and Nasaka camps since June. Detainees were reportedly denied food, water, and sleep, and some deaths in custody were reported. Violence in Rakhine State claimed the lives of an estimated 250 people and led to the displacement of more than 100,000. Many of the affected internally displaced persons (IDPs) have been resettled in segregated camps with no ability to pursue livelihoods.
While numerous contacts in northern Chin State reported a significant easing of restrictions against the Christian majority, there were continued reports that some government officials encouraged or enticed non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism in southern Chin state. An exiled Chin human rights group released a report claiming that local government officials in southern Chin state enticed Christian families to send their children to Buddhist schools, called NaTaLa schools, in exchange for food and free education for their children. In previous years, those who refused to convert upon completion of schooling were allegedly subjected to forced labor as porters for the military; however, there were no reports that this practice continued during the year. There were no reports that government officials used Christian and Muslim students to build monasteries and pagodas, unlike in years past. Government officials reportedly forced some non-Buddhist students to shave their heads in accordance with the practice of Buddhist monks. Reports suggested that the government also sought to encourage members of the Naga ethnic group in Sagaing Division to convert to Buddhism through similar means.
The government continued its efforts to exert control over the Buddhist clergy (Sangha). Unlike in previous years, no monks were defrocked. The arrest of monks declined significantly during the year. According to one local group that tracks political prisoners, the government released hundreds of political prisoners in January, September, and November, including nearly all of the monks who had been imprisoned following the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Nyi Nyi Lwin--also known as U Gambira, a monk who led the Saffron Revolution--was released from prison in January and subsequently re-arrested in December for political, rather than religious reasons.
According to the Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP)--formerly based in Thailand but now also working in Burma--at the end of the year only two monks remained in prison. The government continued to detain Shin Nyana, a monk sentenced in 2010 to 20 years imprisonment for his teaching of a religious doctrine that did not comport with Theraveda Buddhism. Authorities reportedly denied imprisoned monks permission to keep Buddhist Sabbath (Uposatha), wear robes, and shave their heads while in prison. They were also not allowed at times to eat food compatible with their monastic code.
Authorities continued to disrupt religious gatherings of some ethnic and religious minorities and to treat their houses of worship disrespectfully. In March an international organization reported the disruption of a Christian conference in Chin state by elements of the Burmese Army. Three days later, the organization reported that military personnel burned Bibles, destroyed church property, and stole audio/video equipment from a Baptist church in Kachin state after villagers fled violence.
Muslims across the country, as well as ethnic Chinese and Indians, often were required to obtain permission from township authorities to leave their hometowns. Authorities often denied Rohingya and other Muslims living in Rakhine State permission to travel for any purpose; however, permission was sometimes obtained through bribery. Authorities granted Muslims in other regions more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions. For example, Rohingya living in Rangoon needed permission from immigration authorities to travel into and out of Rakhine State.
The government denied citizenship status to Rohingya, claiming that they did not meet the requirements of the 1982 citizenship law, which required that their ancestors reside in the country before the start of British colonial rule in 1824. Most Rohingya asserted that their presence in the area predated the British arrival by several centuries. Since 1982, Rohingya commonly have been referred to as “illegal immigrants” within Burma and “stateless” by the international community. Without citizenship status Rohingya did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Authorities did not permit those Muslim students from Rakhine State who completed high school 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. Rohingya also were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples needed to obtain government permission to marry and faced restrictions on the number of children they could have legally. Authorities also restricted their access to healthcare. 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.
Some restrictions on religious freedom remained, and included those on repairing and building new facilities for worship, the ability for some groups to hold religious gatherings without interference, and prisoners’ ability to practice their respective religions freely. The government selectively enforced legal restrictions on religious freedom. Religious organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression and association.
Government censors continued to enforce some restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Quran, 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.
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 lectures both before and after they occurred.
Some Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs. Some Christian schools did not register with the Myanmar Council of Churches, a group representing 14 Christian denominations, but were able to conduct affairs without government interference.
Authorities continued to restrict gatherings to celebrate traditional Christian and Islamic holidays. In satellite towns surrounding Rangoon, Muslims generally were allowed to gather for worship and religious training only during major Muslim holidays. Several sources reported that Rohingya Muslims were unable to hold congregational Eid prayers because mosques were locked after communal violence in June. Sources stated that unsanitary conditions in IDP camps made the Eid rituals impossible, and that emergency orders in effect to prevent rioting, including curfews, also prevented Eid prayers in many villages in Rakhine State.
The government continued to discriminate against minority religious groups, restricting educational activities, proselytizing, and the restoration or construction of churches and mosques. In practice nearly all promotions to senior positions within the military and civil service were reserved for Buddhists.
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. There were reports of the destruction of large Christian crosses in Chin state, most of which were on prominent hilltops. Authorities stopped construction on the Sufi Shahul Hamid Nagori Flag Post and Mosque in Insein, 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 construction requests in prominent locations reportedly encountered delays, were often denied, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed by more senior authorities.
It remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to build new or repair existing mosques, although internal maintenance was allowed in some cases. 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 roof repair of a Rangoon mosque became the center of controversy after the Yangon City Development Committee forced the mosque to suspend work. Key local politicians allegedly approved the renovation project after the Muslim community agreed to support them in the April elections. However, authorities revoked the permit after the Buddhist community allegedly sent a letter of protest to the Union Election Commission in Naypyitaw. By year’s end, Rangoon authorities approved the rebuilding of the roof and a new one had been erected.
Christian groups reported greater ease in obtaining permission to buy land or build new churches during the year. In some cases, however, authorities denied permission to build and to repair religious facilities.
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.
The government allowed members of religious groups, except the Rohingya, to establish and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries and to travel abroad for religious purposes. 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. Approximately 5,000 non-Rohingya Muslims from Burma participated in the Hajj during the year. The government expedited passport issuance and helped facilitate some travel arrangements for 350 of the pilgrims. The government also expedited passports and helped facilitate travel for more than 2,000 private citizens who made pilgrimages to Bodhgaya.
The SMNC and Ministry of Religion also subjected the Sangha to special restrictions on freedom of political 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. The SMNC evicted Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw, the Abbot of Sardu Pariyatti Monastery, in February for political activities, including a 2011 speech at the headquarters of the pro-democracy National League for Democracy party. Shwe Nya Wah Sayadaw was banned from giving sermons for a year in 2011 because the SMNC deemed his sermons too political.
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.
The government continued interfaith dialogue, sponsoring for example the non-political and largely charitable activities of an interfaith group consisting of Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu representatives. The government consulted with the group to inform the Rangoon government’s response to the crisis in Rakhine State and to prevent the violence from spilling into the city. The government also endorsed the formation of the interfaith Myanmar Religions for Peace group in September.