On the eve of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Muslims in Burma’s Thaketa Township in Rangoon will have even fewer places to pray or study their faith. Late last month, the township’s two Islamic schools, or madrassas, were chained shut after a Buddhist ultranationalist mob pressured authorities to close them. The schools have not been allowed to reopen and some fear they will suffer the fate of other madrassas shut by the authorities, and stay closed.
This is just a small fraction of the pressure facing the Muslim community in Burma, but it is felt acutely. As Muslim minority communities increase, they have fewer places to pray. The Burmese population is 90 percent Buddhist, with the percentage of Muslims estimated to be in the lower single digits.
Although Buddhist ultranationalists have, in the past, pressured madrassas not to allow people in for prayers, Muslims in Thaketa Township told me that for several years they’ve received permission to pray there during Ramadan. Now they have no such option and are faced with crowded mosques – the closest is a 30-minute walk away – and staggered prayer sessions.
“It has been a long time since we have been able to build new mosques in this country,” said Kyaw Khin, head of a national Muslim group. “Others are destroyed in violence, and some are closed by the government.”
The Burmese government has placed opaque and onerous restrictions on the construction or renovation of religious structures, as well as limits on the practice of religion, elements of the systemic discrimination facing Muslims, including the ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, that we have documented for decades in Burma.
The government needs to allow all people in Burma to worship freely, including by reopening religious schools and protecting minorities from mobs. Meanwhile, the residents of Thaketa Township will be forced to walk hours every day just to make it to daily prayers.