There were reports of killings, physical abuse, arbitrary arrest, and continued detention of religious leaders and believers, restrictions on religious practice and travel, forced displacement, and discrimination in employment, granting of building permits, and access to citizenship. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it is difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
On January 13-14, military, police, and paramilitary security forces allegedly killed dozens of Rohingya Muslims in retaliation for the alleged killing of a police officer in Rakhine State. The UNHCHR said she received credible reports of killings in the area although the number of deaths was disputed. The government investigation concluded that only one death, that of the police officer, occurred. For several weeks following the incident the military and other security forces sealed off the village, allegedly destroying evidence. The government did not grant access to independent forensic experts to examine the scene or conduct a credible, independent investigation, making any definitive account of the events impossible. The UN Secretary-General’s August report to the General Assembly stated, “In early January 2014, violent incidents were reported in Du Chee Yar Tan village of Maungdaw Township. Reports of the disappearance of a police officer and alleged killings of several local Muslims caused concern within the international community.”
Since late September local security forces arrested an increasing number of Rohingya on charges of extremism. Between September and November the Arakan Project documented approximately 150 arbitrary arrests of Rohingya by the Border Guard Police, mostly for alleged links to Islamic terrorism. In some cases, those arrested reportedly were able to secure their release with payment of bribes. Of those arrested, the Arakan Project reported at least four were killed due to torture and beating. There also were reports of mass detentions of Muslims who were denied basic due process rights and of Muslim detainees suffering physical and verbal abuse, being denied access to food, and having their movements restricted, which affected their employment opportunities and ability to access healthcare.
There were episodes of violence against Muslim communities scattered throughout the country, usually following the same pattern of a dispute rapidly escalating into mob violence. For instance, according to news reports, on September 20, a personal dispute between a Buddhist and a Muslim in Myit Chae town, Magway Division, escalated into a physical altercation. News of the altercation spread and a mob of between 100-200 Buddhists destroyed the Muslim’s home and shop and partially destroyed a nearby mosque. While initially slow to respond, local police deployed forces and stabilized the situation by September 21.
Government soldiers reportedly injured Christian religious leaders and damaged buildings during skirmishes in Kachin State, blocked access to churches in areas of active conflict, and built Buddhist monasteries in predominantly Christian areas. In Kachin State, there were reports that government soldiers occupied churches and left the properties in disrepair.
The government continued to detain Shin Nyana, a monk sentenced in 2010 to a 20-year term of imprisonment for teaching a religious doctrine that did not comport with Theravada Buddhism. The government released U Ottama, reportedly a member of Moe Pyar, the same group as Shin Nyana. Authorities reportedly denied the monks permission to keep the Buddhist Sabbath, wear robes, or shave their heads while in prison. They were also at times not allowed food compatible with their monastic code. According to media reports and embassy contacts, Shin Nyana was the only monk in detention at year’s end.
On June 10, police raided Mahasantisukha Monastery in Tamwe Township, Rangoon, reportedly over a dispute between the State Sangha Monk Coordination Committee and monk Pyinyar Wuntha on the ownership of the monastery, and arrested five monks and several laypeople. The police released the laypeople the same day without charges and charged the five monks with trespassing and defiling a place of worship. On June 13, the monks were transferred to Insein jail where they were defrocked; on June 20, they were released on bail.
After a July visit to camps for some of the 140,000 persons the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates to be displaced by intercommunal violence in Rakhine State, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar said that conditions were “deplorable” in camps for both Buddhists and Muslims. She said she had received reports of deaths due lack of access to emergency medical assistance and due to preventable, chronic, or pregnancy-related conditions, and that the health situation in the Muslim internally displaced person (IDP) camps was of particular concern.
In Rakhine State, security forces also imposed restrictions on the movement of villagers and Rohingya IDPs because of reported persistent threats of violence from members of Rakhine communities. These restrictions impeded the ability of Muslims, including Rohingya, to pursue livelihoods, access markets and humanitarian assistance, and engage other communities. Some reports questioned whether security forces were being used to isolate Muslims and urged the government to end the separation of Muslims so it did not become permanent.
Government officials denied Muslims access to government hospitals, except for emergencies. Groups in some townships complicated efforts by aid workers to provide humanitarian assistance to Muslims. Senior government officials condemned these practices and stated that assistance should be made available without limitations.
Authorities often denied Muslims living in Rakhine State permission to travel for any purpose; however, permission sometimes was obtained through bribery. Authorities granted Muslims in other regions more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions. For example, Muslims living in Rangoon needed permission from immigration authorities to travel into and out of Rakhine State.
Authorities in Mandalay Division denied freedom of movement to Muslims displaced by violence in Meiktila and living in camps for IDPs, and those officials withheld permission for the majority of the displaced Muslims to return to their homes and rebuild on their land. In August the government began resettling Buddhist and Muslim IDPs; as of December, more than 3,200 persons remained displaced. Local authorities in some cases reportedly denied Muslims permission to own land.
Citizens and permanent residents were required to carry government-issued national registration cards, also known as citizenship “scrutiny” cards, which permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards often indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity, but there appeared to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion was indicated on the card. Citizens also were required to indicate their religion on certain official applications 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 national registration cards. Muslims were required to indicate a foreign ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for the national registration cards.
The government denied Rohingya citizenship status on the basis that the Rohingya were “illegal immigrants” and stated the Rohingya did not meet the legal requirement for citizenship (i.e., that their ancestors resided in the country before the start of British colonial rule in 1824). Many Rohingya stated their ancestors’ presence in the area predated the British arrival. Without citizenship status, the Rohingya did not have access to secondary education in state-run schools. Authorities did not permit Muslim high school graduates from Rakhine State, including Rohingya and others living in IDP camps, to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar Muslim university students who did not possess national registration cards from graduating. These students were permitted to attend classes and take examinations, but they could not receive diplomas unless they claimed a “foreign” ethnic minority affiliation. The Rohingya also were unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions. Rohingya couples needed to obtain government permission to marry. In addition, Rakhine State authorities continued to enforce a two-child only policy with regard to Muslim families. Authorities also restricted Muslims’ access to healthcare. Authorities prevented Muslims from living in Rakhine State’s Gwa or Taungup areas.
The government launched a citizenship verification exercise to address the issue of citizenship of the Rohingya. In a pilot exercise initiated in Myebon Township in June, the government required Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” if they wished to be considered citizens, claiming that the Muslim residents of northern Rakhine State were illegal immigrants from Bangladesh or descendants of migrants transplanted by the British during colonial rule. On September 22, the government awarded naturalized full citizenship to 209 Rohingya and Kaman Muslims out of the total 1,049 Muslims who participated in the pilot verification exercise and continued its review of the remaining applications in December. The government announced its intent to conduct a similar verification for the entire state after the pilot process’ completion. The government did not make provision for Rohingya and Kaman Muslims who gained citizenship to move out of IDP camps. Moreover, naturalized citizens do not hold the same rights as other citizens.
Numerous individuals in Chin State reported a significant easing of restrictions affecting the Christian majority in the state. Unlike in past years, there were no reports of the destruction of Christian crosses. Authorities did not, however, provide for the restoration of crosses previously destroyed under the military regime and in some cases rejected applications from Christian organizations to construct a cross.
Civil society groups reported the Chin State government did not widely or consistently make use of the authority the central government granted it in 2013 to approve requests for the construction of religious buildings. The Chin State government had requested this authority in an effort to facilitate timely approval of permits. There were continued reports that some local government officials denied or delayed permits to renovate or build Christian churches in Chin State and other areas. Local authorities in Chin State also continued to prohibit Christian groups and churches from buying land in the name of their religious organizations. Individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.
In March authorities tried a pastor after he refused to stop constructing a building for Christian worship without prior official permission in Yesagyo Township, Magwe Division. The pastor submitted an application for the construction, but local Buddhist townspeople and monks objected to his application, which subsequently led to an order issued by the local administrative authority to cease construction. The court subsequently acquitted the pastor of the charge.
In most regions, Christian and Islamic groups that sought to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with informal approval from local authorities. Christian groups said formal construction requests for religious buildings in prominent locations often were approved and with fewer delays than in the past. Religious officials in Kachin State, however, reported state officials refused permission for churches to construct any buildings, including a health clinic, suggesting that only the central government could approve such requests.
Muslim groups reported building requests encountered significant delays, were often denied, and even when approved could subsequently be reversed by more senior authorities. It remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to repair existing mosques, although internal maintenance was allowed in some cases. Historic mosques in Mawlamyine, Mon State, and Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as in Rangoon and other areas continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance. There were reports of local authorities bulldozing and claiming land ownership of historic Muslim cemeteries, including in Mandalay and Yangon Divisions. On November 20, local authorities ordered the demolition of a historic mosque in Yamethin, Mandalay Division. Local administrative authorities had verbally granted ownership of the mosque’s land to the board of trustees of the adjacent Buddhist pagoda more than 10 years previously. The mosque has been sealed off to Muslim worshippers since 2008. When the mosque’s board of trustees refused to demolish it under local administrative order in October, local authorities moved to demolish the property.
Christian groups reported that in many cases, including in ethnic minority areas, the government no longer enforced the requirement that religious organizations obtain government permission to engage in certain activities such as religious education or charitable work. Christian groups in Kachin State reported that approval from the military was required to engage in activities in remote areas.
The government continued to subject public events, including religious ceremonies and festivals, to security regulations and other controls. There were reports that Islamic events required prior written permission first from ward, and then township, police, district, and division level authorities. Law enforcement officers reportedly questioned participants on what transpired at these events. Civil society organizations reported that approvals were frequently delayed until the day of the event.
Some Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversaw the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools. The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Rangoon and Mandalay, which trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Rangoon.
Some teachers at government schools reportedly still required students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practice was no longer a mandated part of the curriculum. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.
Authorities continued to restrict gatherings to celebrate traditional Islamic holidays. The government designated specific towns surrounding Rangoon where Muslims generally could gather for worship and religious training outside the mosque, but only during major Islamic holidays and with prior permission. All public religious celebrations required prior written permission from the police and religious affairs authorities; applications for approval were required to indicate the number of participants and agenda for the event.
Muslim sources reported that, in some cases, Muslim businesses were unable to procure government contracts without a Buddhist “front” person and were prevented from owning licenses to open airlines and banking businesses.
Nearly all promotions to senior positions within the military and civil service continued to be reserved for Buddhists. The government discouraged Muslims from enlisting in the military and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspired to promotion beyond the rank of major were encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism. Some Muslims who wished to join the military reportedly had to list “Buddhist” as their religion on their applications, although they were not required to convert.
The government provided funding for monasteries and pagodas, and support for Theravada Buddhist monastic schools and Buddhist missionary activities. The government supported Buddhist seminaries and permitted them to construct large campuses. Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls, in contrast with religious minority groups.
Some departments within the Ministry of Religious Affairs were charged with supporting the SSMNC and religious ceremonies. The government allowed members of religious groups to establish and maintain links with coreligionists in other countries and to travel abroad for religious purposes.
The government eased its burdensome passport issuance procedures for Muslims making the Hajj and for Buddhists going on pilgrimage to India. There were approximately 3,900 Hajj pilgrims. The government expedited passport issuance for 280 of the pilgrims and simplified procedures for all Hajj travelers.
Unlike in the past, when the government expelled foreign missionary groups, the government permitted some foreign religious groups to operate. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and Rangoon-based groups were allowed to host international students and experts.
The SSMNC and Ministry of Religion subjected the sangha to restrictions on political expression and association. A September 2013 SSMNC directive issued to Buddhist clergy in response to the participation of monks in sectarian anti-Muslim violence and in the 969 Movement, a nationalist movement ostensibly aimed at protecting and promoting Buddhism but characterized by anti-Muslim messaging, was not enforced. The directive explicitly called for a halt to the formation of 969 organizations. The directive followed the SSMNC’s July 2013 decision that the formation of 969 organizations by Buddhist clergy was tantamount to the establishment of a non-recognized religious sect in violation of sangha rules.
The government took actions against individuals whose actions were construed to be insulting to religion. On December 17, authorities arrested Htin Lin Oo, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), for insulting religion, which could result in a maximum three-year prison term. Htin Lin Oo gave a speech in October in which he criticized extremist interpretations of Buddhism. The NLD subsequently stripped him of his membership.
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 “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.
While communal violence increased, the government took some positive steps to address it. From July 1-3, rumors of the rape of a Buddhist woman by two Muslim tea shop owners in Mandalay spread on social media and resulted in riot and intercommunal violence, killing one Buddhist and one Muslim and injuring more than 10 individuals. The government imposed a curfew in Mandalay between July 4 and August 11. Angry mobs stopped journalists who tried to report on the violence. In at least two incidents, Buddhist mobs tried to destroy reporters’ cameras or cell phones. A columnist who openly criticized religious discrimination was threatened by a subgroup of the nationalist Buddhist Organization to Protect Race and Religion. President Thein Sein issued a radio address soon after in which he condemned the events, emphasized the importance of ethno-religious tolerance, and pledged accountability for those perpetrating the violence. The government reported that it arrested 53 individuals, Buddhists and Muslims, in connection with the violence and sentenced 11 Buddhists to three-year prison terms for rioting and spreading misinformation to incite fear. On October 14, four individuals were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for the death of the Muslim. The government continued to investigate and try others in connection with the violence.
The government abolished the censorship office that subjected all publications, including religious publications, to preapproval. Many Muslim and Christian groups noted the government no longer required the submission of religious materials prior to publication and no longer instructed publishers of Christian literature to remove any of the more than 100 words prohibited in non-Buddhist literature because of their status as “indigenous terms” derived from the Pali language long used in Buddhist literature. Unlike in previous years, religious organizations were not subjected to post-publication censorship and review by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The government eased restrictions on local publication of the Bible, Quran, and other Christian and Islamic texts. Reportedly to prevent exacerbation of religious conflict, authorities did, however, request that all religious organizations not distribute sermons that could inflame other religious groups without first obtaining permission.
Government officials increased their participation in public interfaith events, including the participation of Presidential Religious Affairs Adviser Myint Maung and Rangoon Chief Minister Myint Swe at an Eid al-Fitr dinner on August 6.
The Ministry of Information established an intergovernmental committee, chaired by one of the two vice presidents, to address hate speech on social media, liaise with social media operators, and facilitate the consideration of hate speech-related complaints from the public. The Ministry of Information worked with civil society to develop hate speech monitoring platforms. Authorities took initial steps to address hate speech in print publications. For instance, on October 17, the Ministry of Information decreed that the local, anti-Muslim journal Aung Zay Yatu violated media-related laws for containing subject matter that might cause harm to an ethnic group or among ethnic groups, or might insult other religions. On October 29, the ministry requested the Interim Myanmar Press Council to resolve the issue. Also in October sources reported the Rangoon Region authorities cautioned the chief editors of publications printing and distributing anti-Muslim hate speech that such articles could incite violence.