When the president of Myanmar (Burma), Thein Sein, meets with
President Obama at the White House today, he will undoubtedly stress
how his government has taken steps toward democratic reform. Indeed,
in recent years, Myanmar has released hundreds of religious and
political prisoners. It has eased Internet and media controls. It
has held limited parliamentary elections.
But recent applause for reforms obscures a dark underbelly of
sectarian violence and ethnic discrimination, fueling human-rights
atrocities and religious-freedom abuses, which threaten to tear the
country asunder. These are the conclusions that the US Commission on
International Religious Freedom, on which we serve, documented in
its 2013 Annual Report released on April 30.
In his meeting with Mr. Thein Sein, Mr. Obama can emphasize
Washington's commitment to Myanmar's progress, while stressing the
imperative of countering discrimination and violence against ethnic
minority Muslims and Christians. Such violations of human rights
threaten to strangle reform in its cradle and religious freedom
along with it.
Few suffer like the Rohingya Muslims, one of the world's most
persecuted people. Denied citizenship and discriminated against at
every turn, they face continued violence in the country's western
Rakhine (Arakan) state. This violence is often instigated by monks
and perpetrated by mobs and local militias, including police.
Based on sources within and outside of Myanmar, our report
confirms that over the past year, attackers have torched villages
and killed more than 1,000 civilians, while driving more than
100,000 into squalid refugee camps where they are routinely denied
adequate food, medical aid, and shelter from the oncoming monsoons.
Women have reportedly been raped and used as sex slaves by the
military and local militias and police have blocked aid to the
Christians, particularly the Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities,
have also endured severe religious freedom abuses and societal
discrimination, including restrictions on building houses of
worship, destruction of religious venues and artifacts, bans on
certain religious ceremonies, and efforts to press their children to
embrace Buddhism. In renewed violence in Kachin state in January,
the military targeted Christians for rape and forced labor through
Indeed, across the country, the government has failed to halt the
military's depredations or hold individuals accountable for
sectarian violence. It also continues to censor religious
publications and ban the importing of Bibles and Qurans in
The United States remains deeply invested in reform in Myanmar.
But Washington's involvement can be more than providing economic and
political aid to Myanmar's government. It can steer aid away from
former military leaders and their supporters. It can prioritize
efforts to build up ethnic minority regions, promote tolerance, and
support those working for a free, multi-ethnic country.
Washington surely can provide the country with benchmarks for