WASHINGTON: The constitution, laws and policies in Myanmar (formerly Burma) restrict religious freedom and Rohingyas Muslims face ‘severest’ form of discrimination and restrictions including on access to education and health, a US report on the state of religious freedom said.
Released last week, the annual International Religious Freedom Report 2011 noted that Muslims across Myanmar, 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, the report says.
However, it adds, 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,” the State Department report said, documenting the plight of Rohingya Muslims during last year. 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.
During the period covered by the 2011 report, the document also makes note of the government’s implementation of considerable political reforms, but says it did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom.
The government maintained restrictions on certain religious activities and limited freedom of religion, although it generally permitted adherents of government-registered religious groups to worship as they chose.
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 continued to monitor Muslim activities closely. Restrictions on worship for other non-Buddhist minority groups also continued. Although there were no new reports of forced conversions of non-Buddhists, authorities in some cases influenced the placement of orphans and homeless youth, preferring Buddhist monasteries to Christian orphanages.
Adherence or conversion to Buddhism was an unwritten prerequisite for promotion to most senior government and military ranks. Nearly all senior level officers of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and the armed forces are Buddhists.
There were reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. During the year, social tensions continued between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities.
According to the report, widespread prejudice existed against citizens of South Asian origin, many of whom are Muslims. The government continued to refuse to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on their movement and marriage.
Antidiscrimination laws do not apply to ethnic groups not formally recognized under the 1982 Citizenship Law, such as the Muslim Rohingyas in northern Rakhine State.
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 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.
Government censors continued to enforce restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Qur’an, and other Christian and Islamic texts.