Burma Severely Restricts Religion, Says US Commission

28 April 2011, Irrawaddy news

WASHINGTON — Asserting that the Burmese government remains one of the world‘s worst human rights violators and that it severely restricts religious practice, an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission on Thursday urged US President Barack Obama to retain targeted sanctions against the Burmese military junta until it takes steps to meet benchmarks established in UN resolutions and US law.

In this photo taken on April 17, Burmese Buddhists visit Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda during the Thingyan festival. (Photo: Getty Images)

In this photo taken on April 17, Burmese Buddhists visit Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda during the Thingyan festival. (Photo: Getty Images)

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), whose members are appointed by the US president and the Congress, in its latest annual report, titled “International Religious Freedom 2011,” has placed Burma alongside countries of particular concern such as Egypt, Pakistan, China, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

“The SPDC [State Peace and Development Council] severely restricts religious practice, monitors the activity of all religious organizations, and perpetrates violence against religious leaders and communities, particularly in ethnic minority areas,” the report said.

Based on the recommendation of USCIRF, the US State Department in previous years has placed Burma on a list of “countries of particular concern.”

USCIRF alleged that in the past year, the Burmese government has engaged in severe violations of the freedoms of religion and belief, including: the arrest, mistreatment, and harassment of Buddhist monks who participated in peaceful demonstrations in 2007 or are suspected of anti-government activity; the severe repression and forced relocation of the Rohingya Muslim minority; the banning of independent Protestant church activities; and the abuses, including forced labor, relocations, and destruction of religious sites, against ethnic minority Protestants.

Noting that religious freedom improvements and democratization are closely linked in Burma, USCIRF in its report recommended that targeted sanctions should remain until the Burmese government takes active steps to meet benchmarks established in UN resolutions and US law.

“The administration should fully implement the provisions of the JADE Act and coordinate sanctions implementation and diplomatic actions with the EU and other regional allies, particularly the democracies of Southeast and South Asia,” it said.

The US administration announced its support for a UN commission of inquiry on Burma and has worked to build international backing for this mechanism, USCIRF said, adding that US assistance funds should be targeted to empower Burmese civil society groups organizing humanitarian assistance, conducting human rights and religious freedom documentation efforts, and providing public advocacy, leadership and legal training to Burmese living in and outside of Burma.

USCIRF said the Rohingya minority in particular is subject to pervasive discrimination and a relocation program that has produced thousands of refugees. “In ethnic minority areas, where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades, the Burmese military forcibly promotes Buddhism and seeks to control the growth of Protestantism through intimidation and harassment of religious groups. A 2009 law essentially bans independent-house church religious venues, and Protestant religious leaders in Rangoon have been pressured to sign pledges to stop meeting,” it said.

The report alleges that Christians and Muslims have been forced to engage in the destruction of mosques, churches and graveyards and to serve as military porters. “They reportedly have also been forced to … donate labor to build and maintain Buddhist pagodas and monasteries,” it said.

In its set of recommendations, USCIRF urged the government to organize a coalition of democratic nations in Asia to replace the moribund Bangkok Process in order to construct a road map outlining concrete steps Burma must take to end economic and political sanctions and engage with Burma‘s top leader on issues of concern, including: addressing humanitarian and human rights abuses; the release of all political and religious prisoners; finding a durable solution for refugees; and achieving both a peaceful transition to civilian rule and a truly representative government.

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