Saturday, May 20, 2017

UNITED STATES COMMISSION ON INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM - report on Burma

The year 2016 marked a historic and peaceful transition of government in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Yet while the political handover occurred without incident, conditions during the year continued to decline for Rohingya Muslims, as well as for other religious and ethnic minorities. In addition, fresh and renewed fighting in some ethnic areas highlighted the schism between Burma’s civilian-controlled leadership and the military, which controls three powerful ministries and significant portions of the economy. Although the circumstances and root causes driving the ill treatment of religious and ethnic groups differ, there are two common elements: (1) the outright impunity for abuses and crimes committed by the military and some non-state actors, and (2) the depth of the humanitarian crisis faced by displaced persons and others targeted for their religious and/or ethnic identity. Due to both governmental and societal discrimination, Rohingya Muslims—tens of thousands of whom are currently displaced— are stateless and vulnerable, and many Christians are restricted from public worship and subjected to coerced conversion to Buddhism. Given that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government has allowed systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief to continue, USCIRF again finds that Burma merits designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, in 2017 under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The State Department has designated Burma as a CPC since 1999, most recently in October 2016. Non-state actors such as Ma Ba Tha and other nationalist individuals and groups do not meet the definition of an “entity of particular concern” under the Frank Wolf International Religious Freedom Act (P.L. 114-281), but merit continued international scrutiny for their severe violations of religious freedom and related human rights.

RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE U.S. GOVERNMENT

• Continue to designate Burma as a CPC under IRFA;
• Enter into a binding agreement with the government of Burma, as authorized under section 405(c) of IRFA, setting forth  mutually agreed commitments that would foster critical reforms to improve religious freedom and establish a pathway that could   lead to Burma’s eventual removal from the CPC list, including but not limited to the following:
•Taking concrete steps to end violence and policies of discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including the investigation and prosecution of those perpetrating or inciting violence; and
• Lifting all restrictions inconsistent with international standards on freedom of religion or belief;
• Continue to encourage Burma’s government to allow humanitarian aid and workers, international human rights monitors, and   independent media consistent and unimpeded access to conflict areas, including in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan states and other   locations where displaced persons and affected civilian populations reside, and direct U.S. assistance to these efforts, as   appropriate;
• Support efforts by the international community, including at the United Nations, to establish a commission of inquiry or similar   independent mechanism to investigate the root causes and allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan    states and other conflict areas, and to hold accountable those responsible— including members of the military and law enforcement—for perpetrating or inciting violence against civilians, particularly religious and ethnic minorities;
• Encourage Burma’s government to become party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
• Engage the government of Burma, the Buddhist community (especially its leaders), religious and ethnic minorities (including   Rohingya Muslims and Christian communities), and other actors who support religious freedom, tolerance, inclusivity, and   reconciliation, to assist them in promoting understanding among people of different religious faiths and to impress upon them   the importance of pursuing improvements in religious tolerance and religious freedom in tandem with political improvements;
• Use the term “Rohingya” both publicly and privately, which respects the right of Rohingya Muslims to identify as they choose;
• Encourage crucial legal and legislative reform that strengthens protections for religious and ethnic minorities, including  citizenship for the Rohingya population through the review, amendment, or repeal of the 1982 Citizenship Law or some other  means, and support the proper training of local government officials, lawyers, judges, police, and security forces tasked with implementing, enforcing, and interpreting the rule of law;
• Press for at the highest levels and work to secure the unconditional release of prisoners of conscience and persons detained or awaiting trial, and press Burma’s government to treat prisoners humanely and allow them access to family, human rights monitors, adequate medical care, and lawyers and the ability to practice their faith; and
• Use targeted tools against specific officials, agencies, and military units identified as having participated in or being responsible for human rights abuses, including particularly severe violations of religious freedom, such as adding further names to the “specially designated nationals” list maintained by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, visa denials under section 604(a) of IRFA and the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, and asset freezes under the Global Magnitsky Act.

RELIGIOUS FREEDOM CONDITIONS  2016–2017 

The Persecution of Rohingya and Other Muslims 

  In 2016, Rohingya Muslims suffered the harshest crackdown since waves of violence in June and October 2012 killed hundreds, displaced thousands, and destroyed hundreds of religious properties. On October 9, 2016, a large group of insurgents believed to be Rohingya Muslims carried out a series of attacks in and around Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State, targeting Border Guard Police and other law enforcement facilities and resulting in the deaths of nine police officers. In response, Burma’s military and law enforcement instituted a sweeping clearance operation that cut off humanitarian aid and restricted independent media access. According to a February 2017 report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), approximately 66,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between October 9 and early 2017. Since the report’s release, the number is reportedly more than 70,000. (Several thousand also were internally displaced, including some ethnic Rakhine.) Rohingya victims and witnesses interviewed by OHCHR for the report described extrajudicial killings; death by shooting, stabbing, burning, and beating; killing of children; enforced disappearances; rape and other sexual violence; arbitrary detention and arrests; looting and destruction of property, including by arson; and enhanced restrictions on religious freedom. The report concluded that crimes against humanity likely had been committed.

   During 2016, the NLD government failed to respond both to the violence in northern Rakhine State perpetrated by the military and security forces, and more broadly to the discrimination and ill treatment of Rohingya Muslims. In one government attempt at compromise that further inflamed tensions, on June 19 the Ministry of Information directed state media to use the terms “Buddhists in Rakhine State” and, rather than “Rohingya” or “Bengali,” “Muslims in Rakhine State.” For different reasons, both ethnic Rohingya and ethnic Rakhine strongly objected, including thousands of Rakhine Buddhists who protested throughout Rakhine State. Also, as noted above in the Background section, hundreds of ethnic Rakhine, including Buddhist monks, protested the government’s decision to include foreigners in the Annan Commission. The government also largely remained silent in the aftermath of the military’s indiscriminate and disproportionate clearance operation in northern Rakhine State. Not only has the NLD government refrained from speaking out against the violence, but it also has rejected

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Not only has the NLD government  refrained from 
speaking out against  the violence, but it also has
 rejected  and denied many of the  
military’s reported abuses. . . .
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and denied many of the military’s reported abuses and rebuffed the international community’s concerns. The government did establish an investigation commission to examine the October 9 incident in northern Rakhine State. However, the selection of military-appointed Vice President U Myint Swe to lead the commission raised concern among human rights advocates. On December 15, the commission reported on its visit to northern Rakhine State in a State Counsellor’s office-issued statement that refuted a report made by one Rohingya woman about an alleged rape by military personnel and portrayed living conditions in a largely positive light, a characterization incongruous with nearly all other accounts of the situation in Rakhine. In its January 2017 interim report, the commission found no evidence of genocide and insufficient evidence supporting numerous rape allegations, and failed to mention civilian deaths at the hands of security forces even though authorities just days earlier detained several police officers after the release of a video showing them beating Rohingya Muslims. (For further information about abuses against Rohingya Muslims, refer to Suspended in Time: The Ongoing Persecution of Rohingya Muslims in Burma at www.uscirf.gov.)

     Ill treatment of Rohingya Muslims goes beyond violence. For example, in September 2016, as part of a nationwide government-ordered initiative to demolish religious structures built without state or regional permission, Rakhine State authorities announced plans to demolish several mosques and madrassahs (Islamic schools). The demolition order also applied to Buddhist structures, like pagodas, that lacked official government permission. However, religious minorities typically have more difficulty obtaining the multiple layers of government permission required to build or a repair houses of worship and therefore often do so without authorization, making them more vulnerable to the demolition order. 

    Government and non-state actors also perpetrate discrimination and violence against Muslims who are not ethnically Rohingya. In June 2016, a reported mob of approximately 200 Buddhists destroyed parts of a mosque in Bago Region, along with other nearby property. Then, on July 1, another mob burned down a mosque in Hpakant, Kachin State; police arrested five people in connection with the arson. In both incidents, Muslims fled, fearful for their safety. Prompted by the violence, 19 nongovernmental organizations issued a joint statement calling on Burma’s government to investigate, hold perpetrators accountable, and ensure freedom of religion or belief.
 
U.S. POLICY

   The United States must reinforce with Burma its responsibility to incorporate religious freedom and related human rights as part of the broader peace process; continue to press for the rights of Rohingya and other Muslims, Christians, and other religious and ethnic groups; and make clear to the government of 
 
 
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[I]nterfaith activists Zaw Zaw Latt and  Pwint Phyu Latt, 
both Muslim,  were sentenced to two years’  
imprisonment on charges relating  to their 
interfaith activities. . . .
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Burma that perpetuating and tolerating human rights abuses is not without consequence.

    During the year, the United States remained engaged with Burma on the serious human rights abuses against Rohingya Muslims. On March 17, 2016, the Department of State issued the Atrocities Prevention Report, which, with respect to Rohingya Muslims in Burma, underscored pervasive governmental discrimination and the role of non-state actors in perpetrating violence. On April 28, after the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon used the term “Rohingya” in a condolence statement issued following a boat accident that killed more than 20 people, hundreds of nationalist protestors, including Buddhist monks and Ma Ba Tha supporters, staked out the embassy to object. In May, hundreds more in Mandalay protested the U.S. government’s use of the term. Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated publicly it preferred the U.S. Embassy avoid using the term, but the U.S. government continues to use it as appropriate. Also, in November 2016 U.S. Ambassador Scot Marciel was part of an international delegation that visited Rakhine State. On December 9, the U.S. Embassy signed a joint statement with 13 other diplomatic missions expressing concern about the lack of “desperately needed” humanitarian assistance in northern Rakhine State and urging Burma’s government to fully resume assistance deliveries.

   On May 17, the United States announced it would partially ease sanctions against Burma by removing restrictions on three state-owned banks and seven state-owned businesses. In late July, the United States announced $21 million in new assistance funding to Burma, primarily for economic governance. On September 14, while State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi visited Washington, DC, then President Barack Obama announced the United States would remove Burma’s national emergency designation, paving the way to lift economic sanctions and restore duty-free trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. After also lifting restrictions on the import of jade and rubies and delisting 111 individuals and companies from the Treasury Department’s “specially designated nationals” list, only a few restrictions remain, including trade with North Korea, military assistance, and visa bans on some former and current military members. Also during Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit, the two countries announced the U.S.-Myanmar Partnership, which includes cooperation and support on issues such as rule of law, human rights, human trafficking, corruption, investment and economic growth, and global health security, among others. On October 7, then President Obama issued an executive order removing the national emergency designation for Burma under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. U.S. businesses had advocated the removal of sanctions, while human rights advocates within and outside Burma criticized the United States for eliminating crucial points of leverage with Burma’s government given serious and ongoing human rights abuses.

 Lastly, on December 16, 2016, then President Obama signed into law the Fiscal Year 2017 Department of State Authorities Act (P.L. 114-323), which requires the secretary of state to submit a report to Congress describing “all known widespread or systematic civil or political rights violations, including violations that may constitute crimes against humanity against ethnic, racial, or religious minorities in Burma, including the Rohingya people.” Neither the lifting of sanctions nor the act impact the existing U.S. arms embargo, which is the presidential action applied to Burma pursuant to the CPC designation. The State Department renewed the CPC designation for Burma in February and October 2016.
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To read the full report click here.
 

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