(Rangoon) – The Burmese government should immediately reopen two madrasas, or Islamic religious schools, that local authorities sealed off in Rangoon on April 28, 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should publicly commit to protecting the right to freedom of religion for all religious communities in Burma, including in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.
In late April, a mob of about 50 to 100 Buddhist ultranationalists put pressure on local officials and police in Rangoon’s Thaketa Township to close the two madrasas. The ultranationalists alleged Muslim community members were using the schools to conduct prayers, which they claimed violated an agreement signed by the schools’ leaders last year. The authorities carried out the mob’s demand and have not reopened the schools, denying a reported several hundred students their education.
“Burmese local officials’ craven capitulation to mob demands to shutter two Muslim schools is the latest government failure to protect Burma’s religious minorities,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “The government should immediately reverse these closures, end restrictions on the practice of minority religions, and prosecute Buddhist ultranationalists who break the law in the name of religion.”
Claims by Buddhist ultranationalist groups that the shutdowns were lawful because madrasa leaders had signed a document in October 2015 agreeing not use the schools for prayer provide no justification for their closure. Even if the agreement was not signed under duress, as evidence suggests, it would be an infringement on the Muslim community’s basic rights to religious freedom. The media reported that Buddhist ultranationalists had previously pressured local officials about whether prayers were being said at the two madrasas.
Tin Myo Aung, 45, a security officer at one of the schools, told Human Rights Watch that a crowd of Buddhist ultranationalists appeared at about 4 p.m. outside the school he was guarding. As they grew more agitated he became worried, before the police arrived. At about 6 p.m. the police padlocked the schools to prevent anyone from entering. An altercation between some Buddhist ultranationalists and a reporter from the Associated Press did not escalate. A school committee member told Human Rights Watch that the authorities said the closure was temporary but gave no timeline for the schools’ reopening.
Human Rights Watch visited Thaketa Township on April 29 and observed dozens of police outside both schools. Just after 11 a.m., local authorities and school representatives, along with individuals identified by local residents as Buddhist ultranationalists, entered the schools to examine them. After they emerged, the officials replaced the locks and put yellow tape and barricades around the entrances. Police outside the schools have since refused to allow Muslim community members, including those whose children attend the schools, to enter.
The school committee member told Human Rights Watch that the schools immediately sent a letter to the Rangoon Region chief minister’s office requesting to have the schools reopened. However, so far they have not received a response. Tin Myo Aung said that several hundred children between the ages of 5 and 12 ordinarily attend the two schools. The closures deny children their right to an education.
Wunna Shwe, 54, joint secretary general of the Islamic Religious Affairs Council, said that closures like this are not uncommon in Burma, and that they also affect other minority religious groups, such as Christians.
“According to our experience, madrasas that are sealed or closed almost never open again,” Wunna Shwe said. He added that since violence in Taungoo, Bago Region, in 2001 caused the government to seal ten mosques, only four have since been reopened.
Human Rights Watch repeatedly telephoned the Rangoon police information committee, but no one was willing to comment on the incident.
“Burmese authorities and police have repeatedly shown they are unwilling to confront Buddhist ultranationalists inciting violence against Muslims and other religious minorities,” Robertson said. “In doing so the government has failed to protect the rights to freedom of religion and education and provide basic security to all of its people. Burma’s leaders can’t sit back and wait for the next round of violence against a minority group; they need to take proactive steps to address religious tensions and disputes so that all can practice their religion peacefully and safely.”
Muslims in Burma
During the British colonial period and early years after independence in 1948, Muslims held high positions in Burma’s government and civil society. They were in the forefront of the fight for independence from the British. After independence, Muslims continued to play a prominent role in the country’s business, industrial, and cultural activities. Many were public servants, soldiers, and officers. After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, he initiated the systematic expulsion of Muslims from the government and army. No written directive bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government, but that has long been the practice. In 2001, Human Rights Watch documented anti-Muslim violence in various parts of the country that left dozens of mosques and madrasas destroyed.
According to government census data collected in 2014, Muslims make up just over 2 percent of the population of Burma, which is about 90 percent Buddhist. However, that figure does not include more than one million Muslims who are Rohingya, a largely stateless ethnic group living primarily in Rakhine State. Christians make up just over 6 percent of the country’s population.
Burma is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to express religious belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. Protection of this right must be done in a nondiscriminatory way. The right is subject to limitations for the protection of public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. However, those restrictions must be prescribed by law, narrowly tailored to prevent a specific threat, and proportionate to the threat. Burmese officials have provided no information or evidence to suggest that the two Islamic schools posed any imminent threat.
Successive Burmese governments have repeatedly allowed Buddhist ultranationalist groups to prevent minority religious communities from choosing the places they worship, practice, or receive religious education. In its 2017 annual report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom again found pervasive discrimination against both Muslims and Christians in Burma.
Government regulations on venues for prayer and constructing religious buildings are opaque, often only explained orally by local officials, and have onerous requirements. Wunna Shwe told Human Rights Watch that there are no official written rules or regulations proscribing prayer at religious schools or restricting the construction of religious buildings, though some religious schools have been required to ask for permission to conduct prayers over limited periods of time. Burmese government authorities also prohibit construction of new mosques, and make it extremely difficult to get authorization to make repairs to existing religious buildings. Such restrictions have been in place since the early 1960s, and as a result there are many mosques in Burma that have fallen into severe disrepair, while others struggle to support growing Muslim communities.
For example, a leader at a mosque said that local authorities recently forced the mosque to tear up a concrete floor built to keep out rats. Officials had said the construction was illegal because the mosque did not receive permission before undertaking the project. Mosque leaders said this approval process involves no less than six approvals from nearly every level of local and regional governmental office – from the ward-level up to the Rangoon regional administrative office.
The forced closure of the two madrasas in Rangoon is part of a broader trend of pressure, intimidation, and violence perpetrated by Buddhist ultranationalist groups against Muslim communities. The most prominent such group, Ma Ba Tha, or the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion, has been actively promoting discriminatory policies and fueling anti-Muslim sentiments. These have included a successful campaign to have enacted four rights-abusing “race and religion laws,” signed into law in May and August 2015, which inordinately target Muslims and other religious minorities, violate women’s rights, and encourage Buddhist ultranationalist groups to pressure local officials to enforce the laws.
Successive waves of violence against Muslim populations in various parts of the country, but particularly against Rohinyga Muslims in Burma’s western Rakhine State, have left many mosques razed and communities without places to worship. Violence in June 2012 between Buddhist and Muslims in Rakhine State was followed in October 2012 by coordinated attacks against the Rohingya by Rakhine Buddhist mobs backed by the police and military. Human Rights Watch found that the assaults on Rohingya communities in October amounted to “ethnic cleansing” and crimes against humanity. Thousands of buildings were burned, displacing over 140,000 people, most of whom were Rohingya and Kaman Muslims.
In 2013, clashes between Muslims and Buddhists in Meiktila, Mandalay Region, resulted in dozens killed and over 800 buildings destroyed. Further attacks against Muslim communities over the course of the year occurred in April in Okkan village, Sagaing Region; in May in Lashio, Shan State; in August in Htan Gone village, Sagaing Region; and in October in Thandwe Township, Rakhine State. In July 2014, a Buddhist mob attacked a Muslim house in the city of Mandalay.
In late June and early July 2016, mobs destroyed two mosques in the same week, one in Bago Region, the other in Kachin State.
In October 2016, after a Rohingya militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) attacked three border posts in northern Rakhine State, Burmese security forces engaged in a campaign of arson, torture, extrajudicial killings, and rape. In March 2017, the United Nations passed a resolution to dispatch a fact-finding mission to investigate these attacks and other abuses, which a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said very likely amounted to crimes against humanity.