Burma (officially called Myanmar) is a nation at the crossroads. For more than 50 years, Burma has been ruled by a succession of brutal military dictatorships, and for over 65 years the country has been torn apart by civil war.
Since 2011, however, a new government led by President Thein Sein has introduced a series of political reforms. While the military continues to dominate politics, former General Thein Sein has released hundreds of political prisoners, permitted increased space for media, civil society and political actors, engaged with the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, and agreed preliminary ceasefires with most of the ethnic armed resistance groups. However, there is still a very long way to go.
In 2013 CSW staff trained around twenty political activists from around Burma in how to document human rights abuses and work with the media.
Grave human rights violations continue to be perpetrated, particularly in predominantly Christian Kachin state and in many Muslim-populated areas. Since 2012, a major wave of anti-Muslim violence has swept the country, initially targeting the Rohingya people in Arakan state before spreading to affect Muslims more widely in 2013. Militant Buddhist nationalism has arisen as a movement, creating an atmosphere of rising religious intolerance. The political reforms are still fragile, and amount to a change of atmosphere but not yet a change of system. There are reasons for cautious optimism, but Burma continues to face many very significant human rights challenges, particularly in regard to freedom of religion or belief.
Freedom of expression
In Rangoon and other major cities, the space for freedom of expression has expanded in recent years. Civil society is active and growing, there is greater freedom for the media, and political actors are able to organise in a way that was previously impossible. Most political prisoners have been released. However, there are still several hundred political prisoners in jail, and the authorities continue to arrest demonstrators and activists, particularly in the ethnic areas.
Decades of conflict in the ethnic states have left hundreds of thousands internally displaced or as refugees in other countries. While preliminary ceasefires have brought about a reduction in fighting and human rights violations in Karen, Karenni and Shan states, sporadic fighting continues, and abuses including the use of forced labour, torture and killing of civilians have not stopped. In Kachin state, where the Burma Army launched a new offensive in 2011, breaking a seventeen-year ceasefire, over 100,000 civilians have been displaced by war. An estimated 200 villages have been burned down, and 66 churches destroyed. In Arakan state, violence against the Muslim Rohingya people has left at least 130,000 displaced, trapped in dire conditions in temporary camps. For the internally displaced, particularly in Kachin and Arakan states, a serious humanitarian crisis is unfolding.
State repression of religion
Burma is a predominantly Buddhist country, in which Buddhism is closely associated with the majority Burman ethnic national identity. The Shan, Mon and Arakan ethnic nationalities are also predominantly Buddhist. Similarly, for the majority-Christian Chin, Kachin and Karenni, Christianity is a strong part of their cultural identity. The Karen ethnic nationality have a significant Christian minority, and the Rohingyas are a Muslim people whose religion and identity are inter-related.
While the Burmese constitution claims to protect freedom of religion or belief, the Government clearly promotes Buddhism and, in some ethnic areas, actively suppresses non-Buddhist religious practises. For example, in Chin state, the Burma Army has pursued a policy of destroying Christian crosses on hillsides, and forcing Chin Christians to build Buddhist pagodas in their place. There have also been reports of Chin Christian children forcibly converted to Buddhism in military-run Buddhist monastic schools. In conflict situations such as in Kachin state, or in the past in Karen and Karenni states, churches would often be targeted when a village was attacked. In government service throughout the country, Christians and Muslims face discrimination, and are usually denied promotion. Even in urban areas, where freedom of religion or belief appears to be protected, subtle violations continue. For example, it is difficult for churches to obtain permission to renovate existing buildings or build new churches, or to hold a meeting other than a Sunday service. Churches meeting in apartments or office buildings face periodic harassment from local authorities.
A new wave of anti-Muslim violence swept Burma in 2012 and 2013. While this appears to have been primarily led by non-state actors, including a militant Buddhist movement known as ‘969’, security forces and the government have failed to protect vulnerable communities, and many of the perpetrators have not been brought to justice. It is believed that elements of the state are complicit with, or at least sympathetic to, the anti-Muslim movement.
CSW’s work in Burma
CSW has worked in Burma for over twenty years. CSW travels regularly to all the border areas, to document the situation in the ethnic states, particularly among the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Kachin and Chin. CSW also travels regularly inside Burma, to discuss the situation with religious organisations, political parties and civil society groups, and provide training in advocacy, human rights and freedom of religion or belief. CSW has documented violence against Muslims in Burma, and advocates for respect for human rights for the Rohingya and Rakhine people. CSW regularly briefs policy makers around the world, including in the United Kingdom, European Union, United States, Japan and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). In addition CSW regularly provides comment and analysis on Burma to international media and has organised fact-finding visits to Burma and its borders for politicians and journalists. In working closely with others, CSW promotes federal democracy, respect for human rights including freedom of religion or belief, interfaith dialogue and a genuine peace process for the ethnic nationalities in Burma.
- Capital: Naypyidaw, established in 2005 by former Senior-General Than Shwe
- Population: estimated 55 million
- Majority language: Burmese
- Major ethnic nationalities (and languages) include: Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon, Arakanese (Rakhine), Chin, Kachin
- Religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Animism
- 12 February 1947: Panglong Agreement establishes federal union for the ethnic nationalities
- 19 July 1947: Burma’s independence leader Aung San and half his cabinet assassinated
- 4 January 1948: Burma’s independence from Britain
- 2 March 1962: General Ne Win stages military coup
- 8 August 1988: Burma Army brutally suppresses pro-democracy demonstrations
- 27 May 1990: Aung San Suu Kyi and National League for Democracy win 80% of parliamentary seats in first free elections in 30 years
- 14 October 1991: Aung San Suu Kyi awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
- 26 September 2007: Burma Army brutally suppresses pro-democracy protests led by Buddhist monks (known as the ‘Saffron Revolution’)
- 14 February 2008: assassination of Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, General Secretary of the Karen National Union (KNU)
- 2 May 2008 – Cyclone Nargis strikes Burma, causing the worst humanitarian crisis in decades
- 10 May 2008 – referendum on a new constitution
- 7 November 2010: first election in 20 years, amidst accusations of widespread vote rigging
- 13 November 2010: Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest
- 9 June 2011: Burma Army breaks seventeen-year ceasefire with the Kachin, and launches new war
- 19 August 2011: Aung San Suu Kyi and new President Thein Sein meet for the first time
- 1 April 2012: Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD win 43 out of 44 parliamentary seats in by-elections
- June 2012: Violence erupts between Rakhine and Rohingya in Arakan State
- March 2013: Anti-Muslim violence breaks out in Meikhtila and spreads to other cities