Section I. Freedom of Religion
Most adherents of all religions duly registered with the authorities generally enjoyed freedom to worship as they chose; however, the Government imposed some restrictions on certain religious minorities. Burma has been ruled since a 1962 coup d'etat by highly authoritarian military regimes; since a reorganization in late 1997, the military junta has called itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The military has governed without a constitution or legislature since 1988. The most recent constitution, promulgated in 1974, permitted both legislative and administrative restrictions on religious freedom, stating that "the national races shall enjoy the freedom to profess their religion ... provided that the enjoyment of any such freedom does not offend the laws or the public interest." In practice, the Government systematically restricted efforts by Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom, and, according to multiple detailed credible reports, government authorities in some ethnic minority areas coercively promoted Buddhism over other religions.
There is no official state religion; however, Theravada Buddhism enjoys a privileged position in practice. Successive governments, civilian and military, have supported and associated themselves conspicuously with Buddhism.
Virtually all organizations must be registered with the Government. Although there is a government directive exempting "genuine" religious organizations from registration, in practice only registered organizations can buy or sell property or open bank accounts, which induces most religious organizations to register. Religious organizations register with the Ministry of Home Affairs with the endorsement of the Ministry for Religious Affairs. However, at least one religiously-affiliated organization was allowed to open a bank account with the endorsement of the Myanmar Council of Churches instead of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The State also provides some utilities, such as electricity, at preferential rates to recognized religious organizations.
The Government continued both to show preference for Theravada Buddhism, the majority religion, and to control the organization and restrict the activities and expression of its clergy ("sangha"). The Government prohibits any organizations of Buddhist clergy other than nine state-recognized monastic orders, which submit to the authority of a state-sponsored State Clergy Coordination Committee ("sangha maha nayaka committee"--SMNC) elected indirectly by monks. The Government provides guidance and enforcement for the Committee at the national level and for its subordinate bodies at regional, township, and local levels. The Government funds two State Sangha Universities in Rangoon and Mandalay to train Buddhist clergy under the control of the SMNC. The State's relations with the Buddhist clergy and Buddhist schools are handled chiefly by the Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (DPPS-"sasana" means Buddhist doctrine) in the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The Government monitored the activities of members of all religions, including Buddhism, in part because clergy and congregation members have in the past become politically active. Moreover, there is a concentration of Christians among some of the ethnic minorities against whom the army has fought for decades, although many of the ethnic insurgencies have been waged by groups that practice Buddhism.
During the period covered by this report, security forces detained Buddhist monks for nonviolently expressing support for democracy and for demanding increased independence of the clergy from the State, and the Government continued to imprison monks for efforts to speak and associate freely. There were unconfirmed reports that security forces tortured and extrajudicially killed Buddhist monks. Government security forces looted, damaged, or destroyed Buddhist monasteries in ethnic minority regions, evicting their monks and arresting some. Reports emerged that monks previously had died in prisons and labor camps. The Government induced Buddhist clergy to instruct Buddhist laymen to resign from the leading opposition political party.
At the same time, the Government, apparently in order to promote national unity and bolster its legitimacy among the Buddhist majority, discriminated against members of minority religions and restricted the educational, proselytizing, and building activities of minority religious groups. Christians and Muslims experienced difficulties in obtaining permission to build places of worship and in importing or printing indigenous-language translations of traditional sacred texts. Security forces destroyed or looted churches and mosques in ethnic minority areas. Security forces in an ethnic minority area reportedly ordered largely Christian villages to provide women to become Buddhist nuns and restricted assemblies at a Christian pilgrimage site. Government security forces continued efforts to induce members of the Chin ethnic minority to convert to Buddhism and prevent Christian Chin from proselytizing by highly coercive means, including religiously selective exemptions from forced labor, and by arresting, detaining, interrogating, and physically abusing Christian clergy. Authorities in Chin State continued to remove Christian religious monuments and ordered the postponement of a Christian religious celebration in January 1999. The Government continued to be accused by some Muslim groups of having fomented anti-Muslim riots in 1991, 1996, and 1997. Inflammatory anti-Muslim literature similar to that which reportedly contributed to anti-Muslim violence in 1996 continued to be widely circulated, reportedly through a government-sponsored mass organization. There were reports that government security forces operating in ethnic minority areas had burned mosques and Islamic schools. The Government forced persons of all religious communities to contribute money or labor to the construction and maintenance of Buddhist shrines.
The great majority of the country's population at least nominally follow Theravada Buddhism, although in practice popular Burmese Buddhism includes veneration of many indigenous pre-Buddhist deities called "nats" and coexists with astrology, numerology, and fortune-telling, which are widely practiced and influential. Buddhist monks, including novices, number more than 300,000, roughly 2 percent of the male Buddhist population, and depend for their material needs entirely on alms donated by the laity, including daily donations of food. The clergy also includes a much smaller number of nuns. There are minorities of Christians (mostly Baptists), as well as some Catholics and Anglicans, Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to government statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practice Buddhism, 4 percent practice Christianity, and 4 percent practice Islam; however, some Christian and Islamic leaders have suggested that these statistics, which are based in part on a flawed 1982 census, may understate the non-Buddhist proportion of the population.
The country is ethnically diverse, and there is some correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Burman ethnic group, and among the Shan (Siamese) and Mon (Khmer) ethnic minorities of the eastern region. Christianity is the dominant religion among the Kachin ethnic group of the northern region and the Chin and Naga ethnic groups of the western region (some of which practice traditional indigenous religions); it is also widely practiced among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups of the southern and eastern regions (many of whom practice Theravada Buddhism). Hinduism is practiced chiefly by Indians, mostly Tamils and Bengalis, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region (although many Tamils are Catholic). Islam is practiced widely in Arakan Division on the west coast, where it is the dominant religion of the Rohingya minority, and among Indians. Traditional Chinese religions are practiced by the small Chinese ethnic minorities. Traditional indigenous religions are practiced widely among smaller ethnic groups in the northern regions and persist widely in popular Buddhist practice, especially in rural areas.
Since independence in 1948, many of the ethnic minority areas have been bases for armed resistance to the State. Although most armed ethnic groups have negotiated cease-fire agreements with the Government since 1989, active Shan and Karen insurgencies continue, and a Chin insurgency has developed since the late 1980's. Successive civilian and military governments have tended to view religious freedom in the context of threats to national unity.
In much of the country there is also some correlation between religion and social class, in that non-Buddhists tend to be better educated in secular matters, more urbanized, and more commercially oriented than the Buddhist majority.
Through the 1990's, the Government increasingly has made special efforts to link itself with Buddhism as a means of asserting its own popular legitimacy. State-controlled news media frequently depicted or described SPDC officials paying homage to Buddhist monks, making donations at pagodas throughout the country, 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 religious shrines throughout the country. State-owned newspapers have routinely featured, as front-page banner slogans, quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. Buddhist doctrine is part of the state-mandated curriculum in all elementary schools; however, individual children may opt out of instruction in Buddhism. The Government (DPPS) has published books of Buddhist religious instruction. The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a government-sponsored mass organization in which participation often is not entirely voluntary, has organized courses in Buddhist culture attended by millions of persons, according to state-owned media reports. During the mid-1990's, the Government funded the construction of the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University (ITBMU) in Rangoon, which opened in December 1998. The ITBMU's stated purpose is "to share Myanmar's knowledge of Buddhism with the people of the world," and the main language of instruction is English.
The Government, which operates a pervasive internal security apparatus, generally infiltrates or monitors the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations.
Religious affiliation sometimes is indicated on government-issued identification cards that citizens and permanent residents of the country are required to carry at all times. There appear to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person's religion is indicated on his or her identification card. Nationals are also required to indicate their religions on some official application forms, e.g., for passports.
The Government ostensibly promotes mutual understanding among practitioners of different religions. Official public holidays include some Christian and Islamic holy days, as well as several Theravada Buddhist holy days. The Government maintains a multireligion monument in downtown Rangoon. It has announced plans to build a new Multireligion Square on some of the land that it recovered in 1997 by relocating Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim cemeteries in Rangoon's Kyandaw neighborhood, although as of mid-1999, construction had not yet begun. Despite the ostensible policy of promoting interfaith tolerance, reports from various sources alleged that government authorities fomented religious violence by Buddhists against Muslims and used force to promote Buddhism and discourage Christianity among some ethnic minorities.
In general, the Government has not allowed permanent foreign religious missions to operate since the mid-1960's, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized all private schools and hospitals, which were extensive and were affiliated mostly with Christian religious organizations. However, the Government has allowed a few elderly Catholic priests and nuns who have worked in the country since before independence to continue their work. Government authorities usually granted foreign religious representatives visas only for short stays in the country but in some cases permitted them to preach to congregations. Some Christian theological seminaries established before 1962 have continued to operate with some state funding.
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, subject to restrictive passport and visa issuance practices, foreign exchange controls, and the government monitoring that extends to all international activities for any purpose. The Government sometimes expedited its burdensome passport issuance procedures for Muslims making the Hajj.
There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. However, government restrictions on speech, press, assembly, and movement, including diplomatic travel, make it difficult to obtain timely and accurate information about respect for human rights generally, including freedom of religion. Information about abuses often becomes available only months or years after the events, from refugees who have fled to other countries, from released political prisoners, or from occasional travel inside the country by foreign journalists and scholars.
Religious activities and organizations of all faiths are not exempt from broad government restrictions on freedom of expression and association. The Government subjects all publications, including religious publications, to control and censorship. The Government generally prohibits outdoor meetings of more than five persons, including religious meetings.
There continued to be credible reports from diverse regions of the country that government officials and security forces compelled persons, especially in rural areas, to contribute money, food, or uncompensated labor to state-sponsored projects to build, renovate, or maintain Buddhist religious shrines or monuments. The Government calls these contributions "voluntary donations" and imposes them on both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. There were reports that in 1998 authorities required village households in Wuntho Township in Sagaing Division to pay money to renovate a local pagoda. Those who could not pay were required to contribute five days of labor. In Twantay Township in Rangoon Division, authorities forced villagers to guard the ancient Danoke Pagoda, which has been under renovation, and to gather wood, fetch water, and perform other tasks for soldiers involved in the project. Villagers were allowed to pay money to be exempted from pagoda guard duty. In Bogalay Township in Irrawaddy Division, authorities forced villagers to construct 32 miles of road between Pe-Chaung village and Kadone village, or else to hire substitutes, which cost about $10 to $20 (5,000 to 10,000 kyat) at market wages. The road is being built for the use of Buddhist pilgrims at the request of the Pe-Chaung monastery. In predominantly Islamic Maungdaw District in Arakan State, authorities required villagers to build a Buddhist pagoda in Dail Fara; residents of one village said they had to provide ten laborers per week. A foreign academic studying urban Burma reported in 1998 that she personally had interviewed more than 100 families from Rangoon and Mandalay who were forced to work during the mid-1990's on the construction of Buddhist pagodas, including the Buddha's Tooth Relic Pagoda, which was completed in 1996.
The military Government continued to enforce restrictions on the Buddhist clergy's freedom of expression and association, which it has intensified since October 1990 in response to widespread support among Buddhist monks for human rights and democracy. At that time, monks throughout the country were engaged in an unprecedented refusal to accept alms from members of the armed forces and their families (a clerical sanction of last resort comparable to Christian excommunication). This followed the killing of monks and laity by security forces during an August 8 alms-donation ritual that also protested the government's refusal to implement the results of a parliamentary election won in May by the National League for Democracy (NLD), which opposed continued military rule. The Government had called that election in response to a request from the SMNC during the 1988 prodemocracy movement, in which many monks were active. In October 1990, the military junta promulgated: Order 6/90, which bans any organization of Buddhist clergy other than the nine orders constituting the SMNC; Order 7/90, which authorizes military commanders to try Buddhist clergy before military tribunals for "activities inconsistent with and detrimental to Buddhism;" and Decree 20/90, "Law Concerning Sangha Organizations," which imposes on Buddhist clergy a code of conduct enforced by criminal penalties. These edicts remain in effect. They have provided the Government's stated legal foundation, not only for a military crackdown on the Buddhist clergy in late 1990 that ended its refusal to accept arms from armed forces members, but also for a decade-long increase in the State's material support for and control of the Buddhist clergy through the DPPS, which the Government created in 1990. In 1995 the military Government prohibited the ordination as clergy of any member of a political party. This measure, too, remains in effect. In April 1997, following widespread riots that involved Buddhist clergy, the Government effectively closed the two State Sangha Universities and banned for an indefinite period the administration of religious literature examinations required for advancement in the clergy.
Following a July 1998 announcement by the NLD leadership that it would again attempt to convene the parliament elected in 1990, the Government cracked down not only on the NLD but also on members of the Buddhist clergy who expressed support for democracy and human rights. On July 15, 1998, security forces and USDA members reportedly used force to disperse monks in Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State, who convened at the Bassein Pagoda to express support for the NLD's demand that the elected parliament be allowed to convene; 20 monks reportedly were detained. On July 28, in the town of Myadwaddy in Karen State, security forces reportedly detained some members of a group of about 50 monks from the Koenawin Monastery who demonstrated in front of the office of the local subsidiary of the SMNC, asking that the SMNC cease acting on instructions from the Government.
Reports published in 1998 indicate that on March 21, 1997, in the Kung Hein area of Shan State, soldiers of Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 524 killed U Keikti, a 50-year-old man who had been a Buddhist monk for 30 years, and U Aindaka, a 38-year-old man who had been a monk for 18 years. According to one report, U Aindaka died after being interrogated, beaten, and tortured at LIB 524's base at Kho Lam. According to a report published in 1998, soldiers of LIB 246A arrested the Venerable Yanna, abbot of the Kaeng Kham village temple in Kunhing Township in Shan State, and interrogated him about his alleged support for insurgents by tying him in a sack and submerging it repeatedly in a stream until he died. A report published in 1998 also reported that on August 8, 1997, military intelligence personnel operating in Sittwe in Arakan State arrested U Zayyathami, a 45-year-old man who had been a monk for 25 years, and killed him on October 8. The areas of Shan State in which soldiers reportedly killed monks were areas of armed conflict between government forces and Shan insurgents; the date of the arrest of U Zayyathami in Arakan State took place on the ninth anniversary of the climax of the 1988 democracy movement.
In January 1998, the All-Burma Young Monks' Union (ABYMU) publicly alleged that during 1997 security forces looted, damaged, or destroyed a large number of Buddhist monasteries in Karen, Karenni, Mon, and Shan States and Tenasssarim Divison (all areas of antigovernment insurgency), forced many clergy to leave them, and arrested 60 monks. Based largely on interviews with refugees in Thailand conducted by various NGO's, the Human Rights Documentation Unit (HRDU) of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), an opposition political group, in 1998 published detailed reports that between February and June 1997, government soldiers burned, looted, robbed, or searched five Buddhist monasteries in Mon and Shan States and in Tenasserim Division.
On November 23, 1998, security forces in Mandalay reportedly used force to disperse demonstrations by Buddhist monks and laypersons demanding the end of military rule, the release of imprisoned monks, a public legal inquiry into a 1997 desecration of the Maha Myatmuni Pagoda, and decentralized administration of the religious literature examinations. During the demonstration, police reportedly discharged their weapons and some demonstrators reportedly stoned a police station and burned a local government office. After the demonstration, security forces arrested and imprisoned several monks. The ABYMU published a report that a very similar demonstration and arrests occurred in Mandalay on January 21 to 23, 1999, but Western diplomats who were in Mandalay and spoke with Buddhist monks on January 23 heard no such reports.
There have been reports that security forces arrested or detained thousands of Buddhist monks and that the Government convicted and imprisoned at least hundreds of monks during the 1990s, mostly for attempting nonviolently to exercise freedom of expression or association in support of democracy and human rights. More than 100 monks have been credibly identified as having been imprisoned during the 1990s, including some arrested during the 1998 demonstrations in Mandalay; however, about half of these have been released, and there is no reliable estimate of the number of Buddhist clergy in prisons or labor camps as of mid-1999. As of 1998, monks serving sentences of life in prison reportedly included the Venerable U Kalyana of Mandalay, a member of the Aung San Red Star Association, and the Venerable U Kawiya of the Phayahyi Monastery in Mandalay. There were reports that Buddhist monks have died in prisons or labor camps run by the Government's Department of Prisons. In 1998 the NCGUB/HRDU published a list of 18 monks whose deaths in state custody had been reported by nongovernmental human rights organizations operating in Thailand. The NCGUB/HRDU did not specify the dates of these alleged deaths. Other sources confirm the deaths of eight monks in State custody during the 1990s, mostly in 1991 and 1992; the most recent confirmed death of a monk in a prison or labor camp occurred in 1994.
In late 1998, in response to continuing NLD efforts to convene the parliament elected in 1990, the Government initiated a nationwide campaign to induce NLD members to resign from the party and to dissolve local party organizations. There were credible reports that security forces used subsidiaries of the SMNC in this campaign. Between December 30, 1998, and February 5, 1999, in three detailed petitions to the chairman senior abbot of the SMNC, the chairman of the NLD alleged: that an abbot serving as chairman of one of the SMNC's township-level subsidiaries in Magwe Division was assisting Military Intelligence Service officials to induce NLD members to resign from the party and urging an NLD member to revoke a bequest of land and a house used by the NLD as its office in the township; that two Buddhist monks in other townships of Magwe Division were assisting the Military Intelligence Service in its efforts to induce NLD members to resign from the party; and that the abbot serving as chairman of one of the SMNC's township-level subsidiaries in Mandalay Division had sent a government employee to summon the chairman of the NLD Township Organizing Committee to the abbot's monastery, and, upon his arrival, demanded that he resign from his position and dissolve the NLD organization in the township.
Both Christian and Islamic groups experienced some restrictions on their religious freedom and individual Christians and Muslims experienced some discrimination by the State.
Christian and Islamic groups continued to have difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches and mosques, particularly on prominent sites. The Government reportedly has denied permission for churches to be built on main roads in cities such as Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. In Than Tlang Township in Chin State, authorities denied a local church permission to make repairs and told the church to replace a word commonly translated as "church" on its signboard with a term commonly translated as "religious center." Authorities in Rangoon have also instructed Chin and Kachin Christian worship facilities to use the term "religious center" rather than "church." Buddhist groups are not known to have experienced similar difficulties in obtaining permission to build pagodas or monasteries. In most regions of the country, Christian and Muslim groups that seek to build small churches or mosques on side streets or other inconspicuous locations rarely have experienced difficulty in obtaining official permission.
Since the 1960's, Christian and Islamic groups have had difficulties in printing or importing religious literature. Religious publications, like secular ones, remained subject to control and censorship. Translations of the Bible and the Koran into indigenous languages could not be imported or printed legally, although this ban is not enforced in many areas. State censorship authorities reportedly object to existing translations of the Bible and the Koran, including some translations that became widely used and accepted by some of the country's Christian and Muslim groups during the colonial period. According to some reports, the censors have objected to the use in Christian or Islamic literature of certain indigenous-language terms long used in Buddhist religious literature; the censors reportedly have maintained that the use of these terms is appropriately limited to Buddhism. According to other reports, the censors have objected to passages of the Old Testament and the Koran that may appear to approve the use of violence against nonbelievers. Although possession of publications not approved by the censors is an offense for which persons have been arrested and prosecuted in recent years, there were no reports of arrests or prosecutions for possession of any traditional religious literature during the period covered by this report.
Non-Buddhists continued to experience discrimination at upper levels of the public sector. Only one non-Buddhist served in the Government at ministerial level, and the same person, a brigadier general, is the only non-Buddhist known to have held flag rank in the armed forces during the 1990's. The Government discourages Muslims from entering military service, and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspire to promotion beyond middle ranks are encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism.
In 1998 the NCGUB/HRDU published detailed reports, based largely on information provided by Karen and Karenni opposition organizations based in Thailand, of burnings of seven Christian churches in Karenni State and in the Mergui-Tavoy District of Tenasserim Division by government security forces during July and August 1997. Many of these church burnings reportedly were accompanied by extrajudicial killings and other abuses of noncombatant Christians and the burning of their houses and other nonreligious buildings. At the times and in the areas where these abuses reportedly were committed, government security forces were conducting campaigns aimed at depriving Karen and Karenni insurgent forces of their civilian base of support.
In 1998 the army's LIB 60 reportedly ordered each village tract (group of 5 to 10 villages) in Ler Doh Township in Karen State to provide 20 women to become Buddhist nuns at the monastery in Klaw Maw village, where the progovernment Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) had a base camp. About 40 women, including some who were previously Christians, reportedly became Buddhist nuns as a consequence of this order.
In late May 1999, on the Burma-Thai border near Ban Wangtakian, Thailand, Burmese security forces reportedly arrested and detained a Karen Christian missionary named Sae and three members of his family, ostensibly on suspicion of spying for the Karen National Union (KNU). However, Thai border security officials reportedly pointed out that this missionary and his family were arrested shortly after KNU guerillas seized a government soldier and four progovernment village chiefs.
In late November 1998, a major of the army's 7th Tactical Command reportedly ordered Catholics in Pekhon Township, Shan State, not to conduct any outdoor religious activities involving more than 10 persons. This order precluded an annual mass pilgrimage to a mountain cave believed to be the site of an apparition of the Virgin Mary. On December 3, security forces and township authorities prevented more than 15,000 pilgrims from climbing up to worship at the cave; instead, they worshipped in a field near Jayrawbalo village.
Since 1990 government authorities and security forces have promoted Buddhism over Christianity among the Chin ethnic minority of the western part of the country. Until 1990 the Chin generally practiced either Christianity or traditional indigenous religions. The Chin were the only major ethnic minority in the country that did not largely support any significant armed organization in active rebellion against the Government or in an armed cease-fire with the Government. Since 1990 government authorities and security forces, with assistance from monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions, coercively have sought to induce Chins to convert to Theravada Buddhism and to prevent Christian Chins from proselytizing Chins who practice traditional indigenous religions. This campaign, reportedly accompanied by other efforts to "Burmanize" the Chin, has involved a large increase in military units stationed in Chin State and other predominately Chin areas, state-sponsored immigration of Buddhist Burman monks from other regions, and construction of Buddhist monasteries and shrines in Chin communities with few or no Buddhists, often by means of forced "donations" of money or labor. Chin opposition groups emerged in 1988 and subsequently developed into active insurgencies against the Government.
According to multiple detailed and credible reports, authorities and security forces promoted Buddhism among the Chin in diverse and often coercive ways. For example, military units repeatedly located their camps on the sites of Christian churches and graveyards, which were destroyed to build these camps; local Chin Christians were forced to assist in these acts of desecration. Local government officials ordered Christian Chins to attend sermons by newly arrived Buddhist monks who disparaged Christianity and promised monthly support payments to individuals and households that converted to Buddhism. Government soldiers stationed in Chin State reportedly were promised and given higher rank and more pay if they induced Chin women to marry them and convert to Buddhism. The authorities reportedly supplied rice to Buddhists at lower prices than to Christians, distributed extra supplies of other foodstuffs such as sugar and milk to Buddhists on Sunday mornings while Christians attended Church, exempted converts to Buddhism from forced labor, and conscripted young Christian males to do forced labor as army porters as they left church on Sunday mornings. Soldiers led by officers repeatedly disrupted Christian worship services and celebrations. Chin Christians were forced to "donate" labor to clean and maintain Buddhist shrines. Local government officials separated the children of Chin Christians from their parents under false pretenses of giving them free secular education and allowing them to practice their own religion, while in fact the children were lodged in Buddhist monasteries where they were instructed in and converted to Buddhism without their parents' knowledge or consent. Authorities reportedly seized and publicly burned Bibles smuggled in from India and arrested and detained a Bible smuggler. In Chin State, the authorities reportedly subjected Christian sermons to censorship. An anonymous printed pamphlet entitled "The Facts to Attack Christians," a guide to proselytizing Christians "by means of both violence and non-violence," was distributed widely by Buddhist monks of the Hill Region Buddhist Missions.
In 1998 several reports, many based on interviews with refugees, were published about government abuses of Chin Christians during previous years. Government authorities repeatedly prohibited Christian clergy from proselytizing. Soldiers beat Christian clergy who refused to sign statements promising to stop preaching. Security forces arrested, detained at length, or physically abused Christian clergy who refused to stop preaching and who were effective preachers. The Rev. Luai Thang, a northern Chin Baptist who began a highly effective mission to the largely traditionalist Paletwa township in southern Chin State in 1991, reportedly was beaten severely by soldiers under the command of Sgt. Tun Myint in the village of Pichaungwa in April 1993 while officiating at a wedding ceremony. He was found killed by a stab wound in August 1993. On August 2, 1993, soldiers under the command of Lt. Col. Thurah Sein Win reportedly cut the mouth of Baptist pastor Zang Kho Let of Phailen village in Chin State, an effective preacher, so that he could not longer talk, then killed him by beating him while suffocating him with a plastic bag over his head. During the 1990's, a relatively large number of Chin Christian clergy left the country and claimed refugee status or political asylum in other countries.
In June and July 1996, six Buddhist monks, led by Abbot Badanna Setta of the Mindat Hill Region Buddhist Mission, reportedly came to five villages in Chin State accompanied by six soldiers under Sgt. Chit Shew from Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) 274. In each village, the abbot reportedly ordered the immediate and total abolition of Christianity and Christian churches. In each village, the monks reportedly demanded that church leaders sign pledges to stop preaching, and the soldiers accompanying them reportedly beat with gun butts or slashed the faces of church leaders who refused to sign in three villages. In one village the monks and soldiers reportedly stopped a Christian religious service at gunpoint. In another the abbot reportedly ordered the removal of a cross from a nearby hilltop. In yet another village, the monks and soldiers reportedly forced all villagers to reregister with the local government as Buddhists and to exchange their citizens' identity cards identifying them as Christians with new citizens' identity cards identifying them as Buddhists. There were also reports that in 1998 a Buddhist missionary monk in an ethnic Chin area of Sagaing Division beat local Christians who refused to renounce Christianity.
In some other areas inhabited by Chins, the Buddhist missionaries adopted somewhat less coercive tactics. Two Buddhist monks accompanied by 2 soldiers from IB 269 who served as their guards reportedly came to a 307-household village in Matupi township, Chin State, in November 1996. On July 19, 1997, a nonreligious public holiday, local authorities reportedly ordered all villagers to attend a sermon by one of the monks, who taught that Jesus was appropriately crucified by the Romans after committing many crimes, and offered monthly stipends for converts to Buddhism and free education for their children. In January 1997, three Buddhist monks reportedly accompanied by a squad of soldiers came to Te village in Than Tlang township, Chin State. Local government authorities reportedly ordered all residents to attend the monks' sermon, in which the monks asked all villagers to convert to Buddhism, and stated that men who refused to do so would be taken by the army for forced labor as porters, while those who converted would not. On Christmas Day 1996, in Thing Cang village in Falam Township, Chin State, soldiers reportedly broke the teeth of a church elder who asked the second lieutenant commanding them to stop the soldiers from disrupting a religious ceremony by singing and dancing. The elder reportedly required hospitalization.
There reportedly have been instances of forced conversion, where young persons from Chin Christian families have been enticed away with offers of scholarships and housing and are then allegedly forced to become Buddhists.
In February 1998, 100 soldiers of LIB 266 and IB 50 reportedly arrested all Baptist church leaders in Lautu Village Tract in Than Tlang Township, Chin State, accused them of supporting Chin National Front insurgents, and ordered them to lie down at noon and look directly at the sun with their eyes open. The soldiers reportedly beat those who closed their eyes. A few days later, military authorities reportedly denied the prior request of the Lautu Baptist Churches to hold a conference on February 22.
In 1998 the commander of LIB 266, based in Lundler village in Than Tlang Township, Chin State, reportedly required elders of seven nearby villages to attend a party hosted by the battalion at which alcoholic beverages were served and forced the elders to drink alcoholic beverages at that party. Most of the village elders, who were Baptists, preferred not to drink alcohol for religious reasons; however, their objections were not heeded.
In November 1998, Lt. Col Saw Thum, commanding LIB 528 near Utalin in Chin State, reportedly ordered at least nine largely Christian Chin villages to contribute money to help pay for a Buddhist pagoda festival that they were then required to attend.
There have been several credible reports of harassment of Christian churches and pastors in Chin State and in the Chin community elsewhere in connection with the celebration of the l00th year of Christianity among the Chin in 1999. On January 5, 1999, after a centennial celebration held in the town of Than Tlang on January 1-3, citizens of the town erected a cross atop Vuichip Hill outside the town. The township military commander reportedly ordered the town's residents to remove the cross, but they refused to do so, whereupon soldiers reportedly removed the cross and arrested and interrogated six Chin Baptist pastors. In response the inhabitants of Than Tlang observed a general strike and day of prayer on January 6. The township military command then reportedly summoned 20 Christian clergy and church leaders for interrogation. On January 9, Christian churches around Hakka, the capital of Chin State, joined Than Tlang's protest by holding special prayer services. The regional military command then reportedly ordered the postponement, at least until April, of a centennial celebration to be held in Hakka, and informed Chin Christian leaders that erection of the crosses on hilltops must be approved by authorities in Rangoon.
Since the early 1990's, security forces have torn down or forced villagers to tear down crosses that had been erected outside Chin Christian villages; these crosses have often been replaced with pagodas, sometimes built with forced labor. Many of these crosses had been erected in remembrance of former missionaries from the United States. In 1998 a report emerged that on October 27, 1993, Burmese soldiers had destroyed the Johnson Memorial Cross at Tung Tlang Mountain near Hakka, and that a Buddhist pagoda had been built on the site on the orders of an army colonel. However, in one case authorities allowed a cross removed from the top of a hill to be rebuilt on the middle of the hill.
Starting in the early 1990's and as recently as mid-1999, there were unconfirmed reports of arrests, detentions and imprisonments of Chin pastors. However, there were no reliable estimates of the number of Chin pastors in custody during the period covered by this report.
There were reports of governmental restrictions on the religious freedom of Christians among the Naga ethnic minority in the far northwest of the country, a group that is smaller and more remotely located than the Chin minority. These reports suggested that the Government sought to induce members of the Naga to convert to Buddhism by means similar to those it used to convert members of the Chin to Buddhism. However, reports concerning the Naga, although credible, are less numerous than reports concerning the Chin. Consequently, the status of religious freedom among the Naga is more uncertain than that of religious freedom among the Chin.
There were no known reports of government violations of religious freedom in predominantly Christian Kachin State. Most of Kachin State was administered by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), under a 1989 cease-fire arrangement with the Government that allows KIO forces to remain armed. By contrast, in the other ethnic minority regions where Christianity is practiced widely, i.e., Karen and Chin States, armed ethnic groups were engaged actively in hostilities against the Government.
Members of the Muslim Rohingya minority Arakan State, on the country's western coast, continued to experience severe legal, economic, and social discrimination. The Government denies citizenship status to most Rohingyas on the grounds that their ancestors allegedly did not reside in the country at the start of British colonial rule, as required by the country's highly restrictive citizenship law. In 1991 tens of thousands of Rohingya, according to some reports as many as 300,000, fled from Arakan State into Bangladesh following anti-Muslim violence alleged although not proven to have involved government troops. Many of the 21,000 Rohingya Muslims remaining in refugee camps in Bangladesh in 1999 have refused to return to Burma because they feared human rights abuses, including religious persecution, as well as other government restrictions. The U.N. High Commission for Refugees reported that authorities cooperated in investigating isolated incidents of renewed abuse of repatriated citizens. However, returnees complained of government restrictions on their ability to travel and to engage in economic activity. There were credible reports that Muslims in Rakhine State have been compelled to build Buddhist pagodas as part of the country's forced labor program.
There were credible reports that during the spring of 1999 anti-Islamic booklets were distributed throughout the country through the USDA, a government-sponsored mass organization. This report followed other reports in recent years of government instigation or toleration of violence against Muslims. Some reports suggest that preceding localized anti-Muslim violence in June 1996 in Shan State and in October 1996 in Rangoon, individuals affiliated with military intelligence and members of the progovernment National Unity Party (NUP) publicly distributed to members of the Buddhist community anonymous anti-Muslim booklets that contributed materially to anti-Muslim violence. In the spring of 1997, anti-Muslim riots occurred in cities throughout the country. Although government security forces effectively protected the Muslim population, they did not effectively protect businesses owned by Muslims or Islamic religious sites; about 40 mosques were destroyed, damaged, or looted between mid-March and mid-April. This violence was triggered at least in part by the attempted rape of a young Buddhist woman by two Muslim men in Mandalay on March 15. However, some Muslim leaders and opposition organizations, as well as anonymous leaflets distributed in the Islamic community in May 1997, alleged that military intelligence, including operatives posing as monks, used this incident to divert the anger of the Buddhist clergy at the recent desecration of the Maha Myatmuni Buddha image by military intelligence (see Section II).
In 1998 the NCGUB/HRDU published detailed reports that in February 1997, during an offensive against KNU forces, government soldiers targeted the Muslim community in Karen State, burned Islamic schools and mosques, forcibly relocated about 4,000 Muslims from four villages in Kya-ein-seik-kyi District, and killed two male Muslims in Kyo Ta village by slitting their throats. The soldiers reportedly destroyed mosques in six villages and looted a seventh mosque in Dooplaya District. The NCGUB/HRDU also reported in 1998 that, according to Muslim refugees at a camp in Thailand, government authorities sometimes did not permit Muslim refugees living in Karen refugee camps in Thailand to return to Burma unless they first converted to Buddhism.
During the mid-1960's, the military Government nationalized virtually all private schools and hospitals, including extensive private educational and health facilities belonging to or affiliated with Christian denominations or international missions. These nationalized facilities continue to make up a very large proportion of the country's inadequate educational and health care infrastructure. The Government is not known to have paid any compensation in connection with these extensive confiscations.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
There are social tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian and Muslim minorities, due in large part to government preference in practice (although not in law) both for non-Buddhists during British colonial rule and for Buddhists since independence.
Even though the Government reportedly contributed to or instigated anti-Muslim violence in Arakan State in 1991, in Shan State and Rangoon in 1996, and in cities throughout the country in 1997 (see Section I), its reported ability to do so repeatedly reflects widespread prejudice against Muslims, many of whom are ethnic Indians or Bengalis.
Since 1994 when the progovernment Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was organized, there has been armed conflict between the DKBA and the Christian-led Karen National Union. Although the DKBA was formed and has operated with government support and guidance and reportedly includes some Christians, and although the KNU is not a specifically Christian organization and includes many Buddhists, this armed conflict between two nongovernmental Karen organizations has had strong religious overtones. During the mid-1990's, when the DKBA captured a village from the KNU, it was reportedly common DKBA practice to interrogate and release Buddhist villagers but to torture Christian villagers and kill them if they refused to convert to Buddhism; a large exodus of Christian Karen to Thailand accompanied the DKBA's capture of most KNU-controlled areas in Burma between 1994 and 1997. DKBA treatment of Christians reportedly improved substantially after the DKBA settled down to administering the regions it had conquered. Nevertheless, during 1998 DKBA troops in Ler Doh Township in Karen State reportedly posted signs in front of churches in the villages of Pah Dta Lah, Hee Po Der, and Mah Bpee, warning that they would kill anyone attending those churches on Sundays. On March 11, 1998, as part of a campaign by the Government and the DKBA to deprive the KNU of its civilian base, 200 DKBA troops reportedly attacked a Karen refugee camp in Thailand, killing 4 persons, injuring 60 persons, and burning churches and a mosque as well as 1,300 dwellings.
A 1996 incident of lethal violence at a major Buddhist religious shrine remained unresolved. There continued to be no arrest warrants or indictments issued in connection with the bombing, on Christmas Day 1996, of a pagoda in Rangoon at which a relic of the Buddha's tooth, then on loan from China, was temporarily lodged. The bombing killed 4 persons and injured 18. No organization is known to have claimed responsibility for this bombing.
A reported 1997 desecration of a major Buddhist shrine also remained unresolved. In early March 1997, reports that an ancient and highly venerated image of the Buddha in Mandalay's Maya Myatmuni Pagoda had been broken into, and that large rubies enshrined in it had been stolen, contributed to widespread public protest demonstrations by Buddhist monks and laypersons demanding an investigation of the incident. Smaller protests expressing the same demand continued during the period covered by this report (see Section I). This reported desecration was widely alleged to have been committed by covert operatives of the security forces, although this has never been proven; at the time of this reported desecration, the Government's foreign exchange reserves were critically low. It has also been alleged but not proven that government internal security operatives instigated the anti-Muslim riots that occurred throughout the country in late March and April 1997 in order to divert Buddhist anger against the Government in connection with this reported desecration (see Section I). There has been no public judicial inquiry into this reported desecration.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
Since 1988 a primary objective of U.S. Government policy towards Burma has been to promote increased respect for human rights, including the right to freedom of religion. The U.S. Embassy has promoted religious freedom in the overall context of its promotion of human rights generally in numerous contacts with government officials as well as through many public diplomacy programs. Due to the Government's continued lack of respect for human rights generally, or to specific aspects thereof, the U.S. Government has supported actively annual resolutions by United Nations bodies criticizing that lack of respect, discontinued bilateral aid to the Government, suspended issuance of licenses to export arms to Burma, suspended Generalized System of Preferences tariff preference for imports of Burmese origin, suspended Export-Import Bank financial services in support of U.S. exports to Burma, not provided any Overseas Private Investment Organization financial services in support of U.S. investment in Burma, suspended active promotion of trade with Burma, suspended issuance of visas to high government officials and their immediate family members, banned new investment in Burma by U.S. firms, opposed all assistance to the Government by international financial institutions, and urged the governments of other countries to take similar actions. The U.S. Government actively supported the decision of the International Labor Organization (ILO), in June 1999, to suspend the Government of Burma from participation in ILO programs, based in part on an August 1998 ILO Commission of Inquiry report that the Government systematically used forced labor for a wide range of civilian and military purposes.
The U.S. Embassy has advocated U.S. policy to the Government (both informally and through repeated formal demarches), to the public, to representatives of the Governments of other countries and of international organizations, to international media representatives, to scholars, and to representatives of U.S. and international businesses. Embassy staff have met repeatedly with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic religious groups, members of the faculties of schools of theology, and other religious-affiliated organizations and NGO's as part of their reporting and public diplomacy activities.
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