RELIGION AND RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN MYANMAR
About 89 percent of all the people in Myanmar are Buddhists (nearly all Theravada Buddhists). Every town and village has a Buddhist temples or shrine and saffron-robed monks everywhere. About 95 percent of ethnic Burmans are Buddhists. The majority of Burmese also believe in spirits called Nats. There are also Muslims (3.9 percent of the population), Christians (4 percent: Baptist 3 percent, Roman Catholic 1 percent), animists (1 percent) and Other (2 percent). Most Christians belong to the Karen, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups. There are a significant number of Hindus of Indian origin.
Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion. It coexists with astrology, numerology, fortune telling, and veneration of indigenous pre-Buddhist era deities called “nats.” The principal minority religious groups include Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several other small Protestant denominations), Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to official statistics, approximately 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 percent practices Christianity, and 4 percent practices Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimated the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. There has not been a census since 1983. Independent researchers place the Muslim population as being between 6 and 10 percent. A very small Jewish community in Rangoon has a synagogue but no resident rabbi. [Source: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2011 state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports
The country is ethnically diverse, with some correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Burman ethnic group and also among the Shan, Arakanese, and Mon ethnic minorities. Christianity is dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Protestant Christian groups reported recent rapid growth among animist communities in Chin State. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups; although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Citizens of Indian origin, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region, predominantly practice Hinduism or Islam, although some are Christian. Islam is practiced widely in Rakhine State and in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Magwe, and Mandalay Divisions, where some Burmese, Indians, and ethnic Bengalis practice the religion. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions. Traditional indigenous beliefs are practiced widely among smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions. *
See Separate Articles: BUDDHISM IN MYANMAR, NATS (SPIRITS) IN MYANMAR
Christians, Muslim and Hindus in Myanmar
About 4 percent of the population is Christian (3 percent Baptist and 1.3 percent Catholic), 4 percent is Muslim and 4 percent is Hindu.
While the Muslim and Christian communities are believed to be a very small minority nationally, the U.S. Department of State reported in 2005 that the size of Myanmar’s non-Buddhist population may be grossly underestimated. “According to the report, the country’s non-Buddhist population may be as high as 20 percent of the total population, rather than the 7 percent reported by the government.
Most Christians belong to the Karen, Kachin and Chin ethnic groups. Christian missionaries began working in the country in the nineteenth century. They had relatively little success among Buddhists but made numerous converts among some of the minority groups.
Syrium (Thanlyin) is where Christainity made its' first inroads into Myanmar. The first Catholic mission, led by Father Bonabite, came to Syrium in 1721. It built a large brick church in 1750. This large Church still exist in Syrium as old brick building. Today Thanlyin is a major port located across Bago River from of Yangon.
Most of Myanmar's Muslims are of Indian, Chinese and Bangladeshi descent. A small sect of Hindus in Myanmar wear spiked harness on certain days. See Malaysia.
Religious Repression in Myanmar
There is little academic religious freedom in Myanmar. Under the 1974 constitution, the regime required religious organizations to register with it. Religious meetings are monitored, and religious publications are subject to censorship and control. Buddhist monastic orders are under the authority of the state-sponsored State Clergy Coordination Committee. The regime has attempted to promote Buddhism and suppress other religions in ethnic minority areas.
Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, wrote: “Starting from 1999 the U.S. Department of State, Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor annual report on international religious freedom report has branded Burma as country of particular concern for its widespread practice of religious persecution against minority religion such as Christians and Muslims. Preoccupied by the idea of “national unity or unifying the country,” Burma’s military regime has embarked on a policy of creating a single national identity based on the policy of “Amyo, Batha, Thatana” or One race, One Language, One Religion” in other words “to be a Burman is to be a Buddhist” through assimilating all identifiable ethnic minority groups into the mainstream Burman society, a dominant ethnic group with which the regime identifies itself. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005]
According to the U.S. Department of State “International Religious Freedom Report for 2011: In Myanmar the “constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom. The government implemented considerable political reforms, but 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. While constraints on respect for and protection of the right to religious freedom continued, the community of Christian churches reported a notable easing of restrictions on church building and a positive relationship with the Ministry of Religion, including the ministry’s organization of interfaith dialogues. The government also passed a new law to protect freedom of assembly and procession and provided greater access to ethnic minority areas for U.S. officials and organizations. [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]
“Religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The government continued to monitor the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public event. The government eased restrictions on the building of churches following the November 2010 elections. 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. 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.” ^
Discrimination Based on Ethnicity and Religion
Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said: “Under successive Burmese governments, people of non-Burman ethnic and non-Buddhist background find themselves discriminated against their Burman Buddhist counterparts in education, employment and various levels of civil service. Even those in the army and police serving successive governments were systematically denied promotions in rank on the sole basis of their ethnicity and religion. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005 ]
“Since the 1980s, the new Burmese citizenship law required that every citizen of Union of Burma register for a national identity card on which all particulars including the bearer’s ethnic and religious backgrounds should be provided. Although the initial intention was to exclude “foreigners” such as Indian and Chinese immigrants from citizenship, the introduction of the identity card has had a far-reaching impact on ethnic and religious minority groups. Because the card is essential for travel, employment, health care and higher education, people of non-Burman and non-Buddhist background could be easily denied for employment as well as promotion in civil service on the basis of the particulars provided on the national identity card. In many instances, for Christians and other religious minorities, promotion in civil service is conditioned by their conversion into Buddhism. Many Christian civil servants with outstanding service records have been blatantly denied promotion while their Buddhist peers with less qualification and less seniority quickly rose to high ranking positions. Even a few exceptional non-Buddhist individuals securing high ranking positions were sacked or forced to retire from their positions.
Biak To, a Chin Christian who had served in the Burmese army from 1973 to 1990 as a Captain and later became a Lieutenant Colonel in the police explains how he was sacked for no apparent reasons in 2000: “At the time of my dismissal, I was the only person holding a B.A degree among officers of my rank in the entire nine Police Regiments in Burma. In fact, I should have been the first one to be considered for promotions. Obviously, the authorities did not want to see a Chin Christian holding high position that they made a pre-emptive move to dismiss me without any apparent charges.”
“Major Thawng Za Lian, who has an excellent record in his military service in the Burmese army until leaving the service in 1997, recounts his experience during his career as an officer with a background of minority religious and ethnic identity in Burma that. “In the army, A, B and C are categories designated for those who can not be promoted in rank. A stands for AIDS symptom, B stands for Hepatitis B and C stands for Christians. Under these categories, those who are carrying AIDS disease are discharged from the military and those who have Hepatitis B are transferred to civil service. And all those belonging to category C (Christians) are not given promotion.” Major Lian eventually left the army when he was asked to abandon his Christian faith and converted to Buddhism by his superior in order to be promoted.
Laws and Policy That Support Religious Repression in Myanmar
According to the U.S. Department of State: “The constitution and other laws and policies restrict religious freedom. Most adherents of government-recognized religious groups generally were allowed to worship as they chose; however, the government imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently limited religious freedom. 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.[Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]
“The 2008 constitution went into effect on January 31upon the convening of the first joint session of the national parliament. The constitution grants limited rights to freedom of religion. Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 354 states that “every citizen shall be at liberty … if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality … to develop … [the] religion they profess and customs without prejudice to the relations between one national race and another or among national races and to other faiths.” ^
“The law bars officiates (such as priests, monks, and nuns) of religious orders from running for public office, and the constitution bars “members of religious orders” from voting. Article 364 forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes,” and restrictions on political activities and on ethnic groups often impact the freedom of religion. Religious organizations are not required to register with the government, but if a religious organization wants to engage in certain activities (religious education, charitable work, etc.), it needs to obtain government permission. ^
“The government discouraged proselytizing by non-Buddhist clergy, often through the use of censorship. These restrictions mostly affected some Christian denominations and Islam. The government generally has not allowed permanent foreign religious groups to operate in the country since the mid-1960s, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized almost all private schools and hospitals. The government was not known to have paid any compensation in connection with these extensive confiscations. ^
“Citizens and permanent residents are required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), also known as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which permit holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicate religious affiliation and ethnicity. There appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining NRCs.” ^
Government Support of Theravada Buddhism
According to the U.S. Department of State: “Although the country has no official state religion, the government continued to show a preference for Theravada Buddhism through official propaganda and state support, including donations to monasteries and pagodas, encouragement of education at Buddhist monastic schools, and support for Buddhist missionary activities. In practice nearly all promotions to senior positions within the military and civil service were reserved for Buddhists. Article 361 of 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,” and Article 362 adds that it “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.” [Source: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor International Religious Freedom Report for 2011 ^]
“The Ministry of Religious Affairs Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. The government continued to fund two state Sangha universities in Rangoon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SMNC. The state-funded International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Rangoon, which opened in 1998, has a stated purpose “to share the country’s knowledge of Buddhism with the people of the world.” ^
“Buddhist doctrine remains part of the state-mandated curriculum in all government-run elementary schools. Students at these schools can opt out of instruction in Buddhism and sometimes do, but all are required to recite a Buddhist prayer daily. Some schools or teachers may allow Muslim students to leave the classroom during this recitation, but there does not appear to be a centrally mandated exemption for non-Buddhist students. ^
State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying homage to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing ostensibly voluntary “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published books on Buddhist religious instruction. ^
Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, said: “Since 1990 the military government authorities and security forces have promoted Buddhism over Christianity among the Chin. Until 1990 the Chin generally practiced either Christianity or traditional indigenous religions. The Chins 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. [Source: Salai Bawi Lian, Executive Director, Chin Human Rights Organization, April 2005 ]
“Along with other methods to Burmanize the Chin, the Burmese military government has converted many Chin Christian families through coercion. The government rewards people who convert to Buddhism by exempting them from forced labor, fiving them ration and monthly allowance. The government also entice Chin Christian children by offering them government scholarship as part of the border area development program. Parents often entrust their children and enrolled them in the program. However, chindlren are later found to be in Buddhist monasteries with their head shaven to become vonice Buddhist monks.
969 Movement and the Proposal to Ban Interfaith Marriages in Myanmar
In July 2013, Radio Free Asia reported: “Nationalist Buddhist monks in Myanmar have collected 2 million signatures in support of a proposed law restricting interfaith marriage, a prominent anti-Islamic monk who is leading the campaign said. The monk, Wirathu, who heads Myanmar’s anti-Islamic “969” movement, said the signatures would be used to back a proposal to parliament aimed at curbing marriages between Buddhists and Muslims in the wake of sectarian violence in the country. [Source: Radio Free Asia, July 17, 2013]
“Under the proposed “national race protection law,” Buddhist women wishing to marry non-Buddhist men must first receive permission from their parents and local government officials. Non-Buddhist men wishing to marry Buddhist women must first convert to the faith. Rights groups and women’s groups have spoken out against the proposal, which follows several bouts of anti-Muslim violence in the Buddhist-majority country that have killed at least 43 people this year.
Buddhist monks have been collecting the signatures since the proposal was first unveiled at a conference in Yangon on June 27. The signatures will be sent to the head monk of the Ywama Monastery in Yangon, who will present them to parliament along with the draft law they are proposing, Wirathu said, after the nationwide signature campaign wrapped up Wednesday. “As of today, I have received over 970,000 signatures from Upper Myanmar and Ashin Pyinnya Wara has received over 1.5 million from Lower Myanmar,” Wirathu told RFA’s Myanmar Service, referring to a fellow senior monk. “So the total number of signatures we have collected so far is over 2 million.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, head of the National League for Democracy, has blasted the bill as a violation of human rights and the country’s laws, saying it discriminates against women and runs contrary to Buddhist principles. But the National Democratic Front, a political party that split from the NLD in 2010, has lent its support to the campaign and is planning to submit to parliament this month a draft law similar to the one proposed by the monks, the Democratic Voice of Burma reported earlier this month. NDF leader Khin Maung Swe has said the law is aimed at protecting poor Buddhist women from non-Buddhists who “take advantage” of their impoverished circumstances, according to the report.
Wirathu, 46, from Mandalay’s Masoeyein Monastery, has previously said that the bill is tied to of concerns that Muslims are spreading their faith by marrying Buddhist women. His “969” movement, the name of which refers to the various virtues of the Buddha, calls on its followers to boycott Muslim businesses and social circles.
Monks Vow to Push for Interfaith Marriage Ban
Aung Ko Oo wrote in the Mizzama Times, “Thousands of Buddhist monks at a meeting in Mandalay have vowed to campaign for a law banning interfaith marriage until it is enacted by parliament. The pledge was included in an 11-point statement agreed by an estimated 30,000 monks at a meeting held at Mandalay’s Maha Ahtulawaiyan monastery. The meeting also resulted in the creation of the Upper Myanmar Organization for the Protection of Nation and Religion (UMOPNR). [Source: Aung Ko Oo, Mizzama Times, January 16, 2014 ]
“In their 11-point statement, the monks pledged to strive for the protection “of defenceless Myanmar men and women” until a draft law banning interfaith marriage was enacted and called for the enforcement of the 1982 Citizenship Law “in the interests of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar and its citizens”. The statement said constitutional reform should focus on the long-term interests of Myanmar and its people. It said the monks objected to the activities of “internal and external elements” who were providing encouragement to organizations and groups that are not included in the list of national races named in the 2008 Constitution.
“The statement said there should be a review of members of parliament who are not on the list of national races and that voting rights should be withdrawn from those holding temporary national identification cards. It expressed thanks to members of the government who had attended the meeting and expressed support for forming the UMOPNR. The statement also called on the media “as the fourth pillar of the democratic state, to report accurately and fairly in line with their ethical responsibility not to harm the interests of the nation and religion” and urged all citizens to refrain from speech and actions that may hurt the feelings of those of different faiths.
Text Sources: International Religious Freedom Reports, U.S. State Department, 2011 state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports; New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News and various books and other publications.
Last updated May 2014