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Burma

On February 1, the military overthrew the democratically elected civilian government, declaring a state of emergency and creating a State Administration Council (SAC), a military-run administrative organization led by armed forces Commander-in-Chief (CINC) Min Aung Hlaing that assumed executive, legislative, and judicial functions.  On February 5, democratically elected parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other prodemocracy political parties formed the Committee Representing the Union Parliament (CRPH) before announcing the self-proclaimed “National Unity Government” (NUG) on April 16.  Governance in the country remained contested through the end of year.

Executive Summary

The 2008 constitution, drafted by the military, guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.”  The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs.  In December, the OHCHR stated that, since the coup, regime security forces had committed “an alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses.”  As was the case in previous years and following the military coup in February, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity.  During the year, there were reports of threats, detentions, and violence targeting minority religious and ethnoreligious groups.  On May 24, media reported military forces bombed the Sacred Heart Church in Kayan Tharyar, Kayah State, killing four persons who had taken refuge there.  According to media, on May 28, military forces fired upon the church of Saint Joseph in Demoso, Kayah State, and killed two men who were collecting food for internally displaced persons (IDPs).  In April, local media reported that residents found the body of a Muslim muezzin, who was wearing a dress and lipstick, hanging in a mosque in Yangon Region.  Residents said regime security forces likely had killed him.  In September, regime soldiers shot and killed a Christian pastor in Chin State while he attempted to extinguish a fire started by artillery fire.  In June, the prodemocracy NUG issued a statement promising to “seek justice and accountability” for crimes committed by military forces against more than 740,000 Rohingya and said if it returned to government, it would repeal a 1982 law denying citizenship to most Rohingya.  In August, the NUG issued a statement in which it held the military regime responsible for having “perpetuated crimes against humanity,” including war crimes committed on the basis of religion.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that regime authorities had confined 144,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya in camps within Rakhine State at year’s end.  The government enforced extensive restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya.  According to humanitarian aid organizations, regime authorities made no genuine efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees.  In September, regime security forces arrested 30 Rohingya traveling without documentation and sentenced them to two years in prison.  According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit human rights organization, as of December 6, the regime had detained 35 Buddhist monks and nine Christian leaders since the military coup.  The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), established by the UN Human Rights Council to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011 and to prepare files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, continued to engage with local actors, including the NUG, to collect evidence of potential crimes but was not able to travel inside the country during the year.  According to leaders of minority religious communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of government regulations, in place before the coup and continuing afterward, exacerbated communal disparities during the year, with harsher outcomes reported for minority religious communities.  Religious leaders also expressed concern that the regime might misconstrue religious assembly as part of prodemocracy activities.

According to local media, some armed ethnic organizations operating in the country continued to pose a threat to ethnic and religious minority groups, including the Arakan Army (AA), which continued to force local villagers, including Christian religious leaders, to work without pay and recruited villagers to attend military training camp.  In September, gunmen shot and killed Rohingya Muslim activist and community leader Mohib Ullah in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.  According to press reports, Ullah’s killers were likely associated with the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).  Ullah had spoken out against ARSA militancy and abuses in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In July, the NUG announced its appointment of a Rohingya activist as an advisor to its “Ministry of Human Rights.”  Members of ethnic minorities said they continued to face discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion.  Rohingya continued to be perceived as foreigners, irrespective of their citizenship status, and as members of a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.  There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya.  Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent.  Some local media reports, however, said the Bamar ethnic majority’s empathy for the decades of persecution suffered by Rohingya and other minorities had grown due to their own post-coup experiences.  A June public opinion poll found that when asked about relations among persons of different faiths in the country, 47 percent of respondents said that strict protection of one’s own religion would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future, while 48 percent said that granting more rights to religious minorities would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future.

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and for human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. government concerns about religious freedom with the regime and other internal political actors, as well as with international organizations and also engaged in advocacy on social media calling for an inclusive democracy that respects all ethnicities and religions.  Concerns raised included the plight of Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Shan, and Chin States amid escalating post-coup violence.  The U.S. government pressed for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.  The embassy amplified the Department of State spokesperson’s message on the fourth anniversary of the military’s August 25, 2017, ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State.[1]  U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to address the root causes of discrimination and religiously motivated violence.  While embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay suspended most of their public programs following the coup, the embassy continued to prioritize ethnic and religious diversity in its exchange programs, selecting participants from Shan, Wa, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine, and Mon ethnic groups, many of whom belong to religious minority groups.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, continued to engage with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 57.1 million (midyear 2021).  According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists.  Approximately 6 percent are Christians, primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations.  Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population.  There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of Judaism, traditional Chinese religions, and animist religions.  The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the deposed civilian government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016.  There are an estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya in Rakhine State, and according to the United Nations, as of August 31, Bangladesh continues to host approximately 860,000 Rohingya refugees.

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion.  Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups.  Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups.  Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist, and some Karen are Muslim.  Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian.  Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam.  Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity.  Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions are animists, observing traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2008 constitution, drafted by the military junta in control at that time, states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs.  The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution.  It further provides to all citizens the right to profess and practice their religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs.  The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status.  This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.  The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs, whether religious in nature or not, and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs.

The law bars members of religious orders, such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting.  The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha).  The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.”  The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth; authorities have denied citizenship to most Rohingya, thus precluding most Rohingya from running for office.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.”  The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The law bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders.  Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties.  The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC or Ma Ha Na), whose members are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture’s Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.  Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Monastic schools, run by monasteries and nunneries in all states and regions of the country, serve approximately 320,000 students.  Those that are officially registered use the official state primary and middle school curricula but also teach about Buddhist culture and ways of life.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect.  One of the laws bans polygamy, making it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse, which observers say targets the country’s Muslim population.  A marriage law specifically for Buddhist women stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance.  A religious conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards.  The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion.  A population control law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing

To register a Buddhist marriage, a couple must appear in court with their national identity card (which identifies their religion as Buddhist) and attest that they are married.  Buddhist marriages may be registered at any court with relevant jurisdiction.  Christian marriages are regulated under a Christian marriage act dating from 1872, and to be recognized, must be officiated by a Christian religious figure registered with the Supreme Court.  There are only a handful of ministers or priests registered in the country.  The officiating church must submit details of a marriage from its registry to the Supreme Court within three months of the marriage ceremony solemnization, and only the Supreme Court is permitted to recognize Christian marriages, making it nearly impossible for a Christian marriage to be legally recognized.  Muslim marriages officiated by a mullah are recognized under the law with no court filing requirements.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In July, the NUG announced its appointment of a Rohingya activist as an advisor to its “Ministry of Human Rights.”  The NUG’s August 24 statement on the anniversary of atrocities committed against the Rohingya received public support via social media.  Some social media users commented that the coup had united the country against the military regime and had produced more sympathy for the Rohingya, which, they said, may have been responsible for a decline in online hate speech aimed at the Rohingya noted by some observers.

According to Muslim activists, Rohingya continued to be perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and as belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.  There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya.  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 local media reports, however, said the Bamar ethnic majority’s empathy for the decades of persecution suffered by Rohingya and other minorities had grown due to their own post-coup experience of the brutal crackdown by regime security forces on innocent persons irrespective of ethnic and religious background.  For example, a schoolteacher told the New York Times, “I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people […] I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years.”

In June, a public opinion poll found that, when asked about relations among persons of different faiths in the country, 47 percent said that strict protection of one’s own religion would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future, while 48 percent said that granting more rights to religious minorities would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future.

Despite a continuing order by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, that no group or individual 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.  According to Myanmar Now, in March SSMNC announced in a statement that it would suspend its activities and called on the military to end the violence and arrests.  One of SSMNC’s 47 abbots said of the suspension, “It is similar to the [Civil Disobedience Movement].”  According to local media, some Ma Ba Tha-affiliated monks held a rally in November in support of the military.

In March, protestors waved flags made of women’s sarongs in celebration of International Women’s Day.  Regime-controlled Myawaddy News called the act “inappropriate” and “severely insulting to religion and contempt of [Buddhist] religion…and monks.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and for human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom, including the plight of the majority Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing Christian minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing violence, and also engaged in advocacy on social media calling for an inclusive democracy that respects all ethnicities and religions and against violence and hate speech against religious minorities.  In July, the Secretary met with civil society representatives from diverse ethnic and religious groups in the country to discuss their calls to restore the country’s democratic transition.

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.  On February 10, the President issued Executive Order 14014, Blocking Property with Respect to the Situation in Burma, which stated, in part, the military “unjustly arrested and detained government leaders, politicians, human rights defenders, journalists, and religious leaders.”  Pursuant to the Executive Order 14014 of February 10, 2021, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated six officers of Burma’s military who played a direct role in the coup.  OFAC also designated four military officials who were appointed to positions in the SAC following the coup and designated three entities operating in Burma’s gem industry that are owned or controlled by the military.  In addition, OFAC designated 46 individuals, including the union ministers, immediate family members of military-related designated individuals, and 14 entities including the SAC between March and July 2021, pursuant to E.O. 14014.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and religiously motivated violence.  In July, the United States was among 15 countries from the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance to sign a joint statement that condemned “any attack on places of worship” and commended faith actors for their work in the prodemocracy movement and in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.  In an October statement about reported attacks in Chin State, the Department of State spokesperson condemned the “brutal actions by the Burmese military regime against people, their homes, and places of worship.”  U.S. government support for the Burma-Bangladesh humanitarian crisis response included more than $124.6 million in 2021, with nearly $49.6 million for programs in Burma and approximately $75 million for programs in Bangladesh.  Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and meaningful inclusion during meetings with the opposition NUG, CRPH, and the National Unity Consultative Council, as well as with ethnic armed organizations and other ethnic and religious leaders.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed in 2020 and 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic and the February 1 coup, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with NGOs and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, continued to engage with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance.

The embassy also posted content on Facebook, Facebook Stories, and Twitter to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies, including the recognition of minority religious holidays.  The embassy amplified the Department of State spokesperson’s message on the fourth anniversary of the military’s August 25, 2017, ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State, which some NGOs said was part of a larger campaign of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The statement demanded accountability for those responsible and noted the $155 million in assistance announced earlier in May as part of the 2021 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis.  In September, an embassy tweet highlighted the Department of State’s announcement of $180 million in additional assistance for the humanitarian crisis facing Rohingya inside and outside the country.  In addition, in October, the embassy amplified the Secretary of State’s statement on the killing of Rohingya Muslim leader Mohib Ullah, in which he praised Ullah’s advocacy for the human rights of Rohingya Muslims around the world.  That same month, the Ambassador’s Thadingyut video message marking the end of Buddhist Vassa, an annual period of fasting and reflection, called for peace and prosperity for all during a time of hardship.  The video received more than 200,000 views and 20,000 “likes,” with comments acknowledging U.S. efforts in raising awareness about shared values among all faiths.

The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

While embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay suspended most of their public programs following the coup, the embassy continued to prioritize ethnic and religious diversity in its exchange programs, selecting participants from Shan, Wa, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine, and Mon ethnic groups, many of whom belong to religious minority groups.  As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance, as well as with former participants of U.S. government exchange programs promoting tolerance and equal access to basic health care, education, and mental health resources, regardless of religious affiliation.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.


[1] On March 21, 2022, the Secretary of State publicly announced his determination that members of the Burmese military committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya in Burma.

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