Speaking at a side event at a meeting of the United Nations Human Right’s Council in Geneva yesterday, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Yangon Charles Maung Bo gave the following address.
“My country, Myanmar, now stands on the threshold of hope. After over half a century of brutal oppression at the hands of a succession of military regimes, and after more than sixty years of civil war, we now have the possibility to begin to build a new Myanmar, to develop the values of democracy, to better protect and promote human rights, to work for peace. Myanmar has woken to a new dawn, with the first democratically elected government led by our Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy. We have a chance – for the first time in my lifetime – of making progress towards reconciliation and freedom as a nation. There is a vibrant civil society and a freer media. We know that while evil has an expiry date, hope has no expiry date.
And yet there is a very, very long way to go; there are many, many challenges to confront; and no one should think that the election of the new government means that our struggle is over. It is just the very beginning.
The list of challenges is enormous. Poverty, education, human trafficking, drugs, protecting freedom of expression, constitutional reform, the economy, health care – these are all just some of these challenges. In Myanmar today, 60% of children never finish primary school; maternal mortality is the highest in the region; the country has the lowest doctor to patient ratio in the region. Myanmar is the second biggest producer of opium in the world.
Among the biggest challenges are the two which are at the centre of the theme for this meeting today: freedom of religion or belief, and ethnic conflict. That’s why the title for this meeting – “Rights without Discrimination: A Future Reality for Religious Minorities and Ethnic Groups in Myanmar?” – is so timely. We desperately need to work to defend rights without discrimination, to establish equal rights for all people in Myanmar, of every ethnicity and religion.
As I wrote two years ago in an op-ed in the Washington Post, “Myanmar is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country, with a majority Burman, Buddhist population. If Myanmar is to be truly free, peaceful and prosperous, the rights of all ethnicities and religious faiths must be protected.”
Over the past four years, the rights of religious minorities have come under increasing threat. Starting with the violence in Rakhine State in 2012, spreading to an anti-Muslim campaign in Meikhtila, Oakkan and Lashio in 2013, and to Mandalay in 2014, and then moving from violence, killing and destruction to a more insidious campaign of discrimination, hate speech and restrictive legislation, this movement – which began as a group called ‘969’ and transformed into an organisation known as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ – is based on an extremist, intolerant form of Buddhist nationalism that completely distorts the key teachings of Buddhism – of ‘Metta’, loving kindness, and ‘Karuna’, compassion – and instead preaches hatred and incites violence. I have described this movement as a neo-fascist group, or merchants of hatred, and they continue to pose a threat to our fragile nascent democracy and to the prospects of peace, prosperity and stability.
Last year, the outgoing government in Myanmar introduced a package of four new laws, known as the ‘Protection of Race and Religion Laws’, which pose a serious danger for our country. Two of these laws restrict the right to religious conversion and inter-faith marriage. Such basic rights – whom to marry and what to believe – are among the most basic human rights, and yet these new laws restrict such basic freedoms. As I said several times, these laws threaten the dream of a united Myanmar.
I am also deeply concerned about the misuse of Section 295 of Myanmar’s Penal Code, the section relating to insulting religion. Although originally introduced in the colonial time with the intention of preventing inter-religious conflict, this law is now used to silence critics of extremist Buddhist nationalism. Htin Lin Oo, himself a Buddhist, spoke out criticising the preachers of hate, saying that their message was incompatible with the teachings of Buddhism, and he was charged with insulting Buddhism and has been jailed for two years.
A related challenge is the conflict in the ethnic states. The majority of the Kachin, Chin, Naga and Karenni peoples, and a significant proportion of the Karen, are Christians – and over the decades of armed conflict, the military has turned religion into a tool of oppression. In Chin State, for example, Christian crosses have been destroyed and Chin Christians have been forced to construct Buddhist pagodas in their place. Last year, two Kachin Christian school teachers were raped and murdered. At least 66 churches in Kachin state have been destroyed since the conflict reignited in 2011.
Many have been killed in Myanmar’s ethnic and religious conflicts; and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. As Benedict Rogers and I said in an article we co-authored in The Myanmar Times in 2013: “True peace and real freedom hinge on an issue that has yet to be addressed: respect for Myanmar’s ethnic and religious diversity. Unless and until a genuine peace process is established with the ethnic nationalities, involving a nationwide political dialogue about the constitutional arrangements for the country, ceasefires will remain fragile and will not result in an end to war.” Furthermore, “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as detailed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is perhaps the most precious and most basic freedom of all. Without the freedom to choose, practise, share and change your beliefs, there is no freedom.”
So how, in practical ways, can the international community, the United Nations, assist the new government in Myanmar to address these challenges? I conclude with just a few specific recommendations.
Firstly, renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar. The new government faces many challenges, and some constraints, and it will not be able to change everything overnight. It will need to continue monitoring, observation, reporting, recommendations and advice of international experts such as the Special Rapporteur.
Secondly, encourage the new government in Myanmar to invite the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief to visit the country, to meet with different religious groups, and to assist the new government in addressing this crucial area of human rights.
Thirdly, support initiatives that promote inter-faith dialogue, both at a leadership level and a grassroots community level, and support the efforts of Buddhists who themselves are trying to counter hatred and intolerance and ensure that the true message of Buddhism, of ‘Metta’ and ‘Karuna’, is heard. Perhaps it is time for the UN, together with the EU, the US, Canada, Australia, ASEAN, to hold an international conference in Myanmar, to bring together international experts with Myanmar civil society, political actors and religious leaders, to focus on how to protect religious freedom and promote inter-religious harmony.
Fourthly, urge the new government to take action to prevent hate speech and incitement of violence, to bring the perpetrators of hatred and violence to justice, and demonstrate moral leadership, with Aung San Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders personally and specifically speaking out against prejudice and hatred, and challenging the extreme nationalist narrative. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi already made it very clear in an interview on the BBC just after the election last November that “hatred has no place” in Myanmar. I hope you will help her and her government take practical steps to combat hate speech and incitement to violence. Perhaps the Rabat Plan of Action could be applied in Myanmar, and the authors of that document could be invited to advise the new government.
Fifthly, urge the new government not to implement the four laws on race and religion.
And finally – the situation in Rakhine state, while not by any means the only aspect of religious intolerance in Myanmar, is the most acute, most severe and most difficult to resolve. It is an intolerable situation, and one which cannot be allowed to remain unresolved. Whatever the perspectives – and there are, within my country, a variety of perspectives – about the origin of the Rohingya people, there cannot be doubt that those who have lived in Myanmar for generations have a right to be regarded as citizens, and that all of them deserve to be treated humanely and in accordance with international human rights. Seeing thousands of people living in dire, inhumane conditions in camps; seeing the segregation, the apartheid that has been established in Sittwe; seeing thousands risk their lives at sea to escape these deplorable and unbearable conditions – this is not a basis for a stable, peaceful future for my country. I therefore urge the international community to encourage the new government to consider four practical steps to address the crisis in Rakhine. Take action to prevent hate speech; ensure humanitarian access for all those, on both sides of the conflict, who have been displaced by immediately lifting all restrictions on the operations of international aid agencies and devoting more government resources to assisting IDPs and isolated villagers; reform or repeal the 1982 Citizenship Law, because the lack of full citizenship lies at the root of most of the discrimination faced by the Rohingya; and finally, establish a credible independent investigation with international experts to investigate the causes of the crisis in Rakhine state, and propose action.
There is hope today in Myanmar. My country is emerging from a long night of tears and sadness into a new dawn. After suffering crucifixion as a nation, we are beginning our resurrection. But our young democracy is fragile, and human rights continue to be abused and violated. For ethnic and religious minorities, this is particularly true, and that is why I conclude by emphasising that no society can be truly democratic, free and peaceful if it does not respect – and even celebrate – political, racial and religious diversity, as well as protect the basic human rights of every single person, regardless of race, religion or gender. As Martin Luther King Jr once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. We are a rainbow nation, a nation of many different ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions. That is the beauty of Myanmar. It is something to be protected, defended, cherished and strengthened. I look to the United Nations to help my country ensure that every person in Myanmar, of whatever race or religion, has their rights protected, without discrimination.”