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Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May AI reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army was likely responsible for the killing of 45 Hindu villagers in Maungdaw Township on August 25, 2017, which the government previously had reported, but some civil society organizations had questioned.

The Chin Human Rights Organization reported the Arakan Army beat villagers and looted property in a village in Paletwa Township, Chin State, in May.

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors.  Many prominent military, civilian, and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where the Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

CHRO reported that in July a mob that included Buddhist monks attacked two Chin nursery school teachers in the house of a Christian pastor in Pade Kyaw Village, Ann District, Rakhine State.  Village monks previously said there would be a 50,000 kyat ($33) penalty per household if each household did not send a member to a meeting at which the monks urged participants to harass Christians attending a church service.  In August, according to CHRO, a mob attacked Pastor Tin Shwe of Good News Church in the same area of Rakhine State, and he was hospitalized.  In January the village tract administrator in Gangaw Township, Magway Division, along with two police officers and some local Buddhist monks, tried to expel a family who had converted to Christianity from the village.  Authorities reportedly failed to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable in these cases.

Despite the renewal during the year of the 2017 order by the SSMNC that no group or individual could operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.  Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media.  In August Reuters found more than 1,000 examples of anti-Muslim hate speech on Burmese-language Facebook pages, including calls for “genocide,” comparisons to “pigs” and “dogs,” and widespread use of pejoratives to refer to Muslims.

In March the SSMNC’s ban expired on the influential self-defined nationalist Wirathu, a monk and the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, from delivering sermons across the country for one year.  The SSMNC imposed the ban due to what the SSMNC called religious hate speech against Muslims, which inflamed communal tensions.  In October Wirathu, who reportedly maintained strong ties to military and government officials, spoke at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon, mocking foreign sympathy for the Rohingya and making other anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim remarks.  There were numerous previous reports of Wirathu making anti-Muslim remarks, such as praising the killers of the prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni in 2017.  In September Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Some observers said Ma Ba Tha received financial support from and otherwise coordinated with the military.

In March prominent writer Maung Thway Chuun gave a speech in Sagaing Division in which he criticized the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament for being Christian and said the country’s religious and ethnic identity was under threat.  Authorities arrested him in June on charges of inciting conflict between ethnic and religious groups, and in October a court sentenced him to two years in prison.  Some observers criticized his case as an infringement of freedom of expression.

There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for the Rohingya community.  Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent.  There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity.  A coalition of interfaith civil society groups continued advocating for and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

In Mandalay Division, civil society and interfaith leaders held meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth, as in previous years.  For example, an event in August drew dozens of community members to a day of activities around the theme of diversity and tolerance.  A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

On November 21-23, the Religions for Peace Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and the Advancement of Peace in Myanmar convened in Nay Pyi Taw, bringing together voices from all major religions to advance an agenda of tolerance and respect.  State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, and other senior government officials participated in the event.


Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On February 11, a man with a machete attacked a congregation during Sunday Mass at the St. Lidwina Church in Sleman, Yogyakarta.  The attacker, whom police identified as university student Suliono, reportedly injured four persons, including the church’s priest, Father Karl Edmund Prier.  Suliono also destroyed statues in the Church of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.  At year’s end, police were still investigating the case and the motive behind the attack.  On February 12, the president stated he instructed police to enforce the constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and said there was no place for religious intolerance in the country.

On May 19, unidentified attackers destroyed several houses and attempted to expel the Ahmadi community from Grepek Tanak Eat hamlet in Greneng Village, West Nusa Tenggara.  The violence forced 24 persons from seven families to seek shelter at the East Lombok police headquarters.  Ahmadi Indonesia Congregation secretary Yendra Budiana said the incident followed a series of previous attacks on the Ahmadi community in another residential area in March and on May 9.

The MUI (an independent clerical body funded by the government and charged with issuing fatwas) called upon all mosques to increase compassion, tolerance, and nationalism rather than spreading hatred, hate speech, and negative propaganda that could sharpen any ideological differences.  “Intolerant groups,” however, used MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing.  Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from “intolerant groups.”  Anti-Shia rhetoric was common in some online media outlets and on social media.

In November media reported the Indonesian State Intelligence Agency had surveyed 1,000 mosques in the country and stated imams at an estimated 41 places of worship in Jakarta were preaching “extremism” to worshippers, often to government workers.  Intelligence officers found approximately 17 clerics expressed support or sympathy for ISIS and encouraged their congregations to fight for the jihadist group in Syria and Marawi, the southern Philippine city attacked by ISIS-linked fighters in 2017.

In March a group of persons vandalized a recently renovated Catholic church in South Sumatra.  The South Sumatra Police in the same month arrested 10 suspects and planned to charge them with assault and arson.  The police said those arrested committed the action due to hatred.  As of year’s end, there were no reports of a trial date in this case.

In August human rights group Wahid Foundation reported that it had recorded 213 cases of religious freedom violations in 2017, a 4 percent increase from 2016.  Nonstate actors such as the FPI committed most violations.  The highest number of violations was recorded in Jakarta (50 incidents), followed by West Java (44), East Java (27), and Central Java (15).  Religious freedom violations were recorded in 27 of the country’s 34 provinces.  The foundation recorded an increase in efforts by the state and civil society to promote diversity, religious freedom, and tolerance.  It identified 398 such initiatives in 2017, a 64 percent increase from 2016.

Christian leaders in Surabaya said they were encouraged by sympathy and support shown toward the affected Christians by the local Muslim community after the May 13 suicide bomber attack on three churches.

Many individuals in the government, media, civil society, and general population were vocal and active in protecting and promoting tolerance and pluralism.  The largest and most influential religious groups and NGOs, including the two largest Islamic groups in the country – Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, with approximately 40 and 30 million members, respectively – officially endorsed and advocated for tolerance, pluralism, and the protection of minority groups.  For instance, in August NU launched the Said Aqil Siroj Institute, a civil society group designed to promote interreligious tolerance in a country where observers said religious and ethnic sentiments were on the rise ahead of the national elections in 2019.

International Religious Freedom Reports
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U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future