Five years ago, the overwhelming election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) in Burma heralded the dawn of a new democratic era after over fifty years of brutal military dictatorship and civil war.
After a total of 15 years under house arrest and more than a quarter of a century of courageous struggle for democracy, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate known to everyone as “The Lady” was poised to head her country’s government. And although the military had deliberately drafted a constitution that excluded her from becoming President, her advisers ingeniously created a new role that circumvented that restriction – the position of State Counsellor, de facto prime minister. With the exception of the three key ministerial roles given to the military under the constitution – home affairs, defence and border affairs – she has absolute oversight of the civilian government.
Yet five years on, it’s a very different picture. Burma approached the crossroads of democratization, peace-building and national reconciliation – and went into reverse.
Burma’s Cardinal Bo has repeatedly called for peace for a long time. In a statement last month in support of Pope Francis’ plea for a global ceasefire, he warned that during the COVID-19 pandemic continued armed conflict in Burma (officially known as Myanmar) would have “catastrophic consequences for our nation.”
He urged the military – known as the Tatmadaw – and ethnic armed resistance groups to “lay down all weapons and acts of aggression. Be armed instead with sincerity and truth. Let us take the more difficult path of overcoming differences face to face with courage and intelligence. Don’t hide humanity behind guns. In the end that is sheer weakness.”
The Cardinal, who is also President of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, argued that: “Soldiers are unnecessarily endangered by exposure to the unseen viral assassin. Civilians are endangered, even by bombardments purportedly aimed at military targets. Peace negotiations are endangered by continued aggressive threats. An economy under severe strain is put at risk by military adventures. Any spike in contagion in IDP camps, among detained persons, or in crowded spaces, gravely threatens the surrounding populations as well.”
The forced closure last week of three temporary Muslim prayer sites in Yangon is just the latest in a litany of abuses inflicted on Burma’s religious minorities by ultra-nationalist Buddhists. Add this to the decades-long persecution by the Burma Army of non-Burman ethnic minorities, many of whom are also non-Buddhists, and you get a nationwide cocktail of religious intolerance and conflict.
Muslims, Christians, and indeed Buddhists, who oppose the extremists are increasingly living in fear, in a country where ethno-religious nationalism has led to hate speech, intolerance, discrimination, persecution, crimes against humanity and, in one particularly egregious case, genocide.
On 25 August last year, the Burma army unleashed its attack on the Rohingya people of northern Rakhine state, precipitating the country’s most severe human rights and humanitarian crisis since independence in 1949. The United Nations’ outgoing High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described this crisis as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”, and the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, warned of “the hallmarks of genocide”. After the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica the world lamented with the words: “Never again”. But a year ago in Burma, “never again” happened all over again.
“They made it impossible for us to stay – how could we survive?”
In March this year, I travelled to the refugee camps on the Bangladesh-Burma border, to meet survivors. Almost everyone I talked to had seen loved ones killed and villages burned. Accounts of mass rape were widespread. I met Rohingyas whose eyes had been shot out and limbs blown off, and heard of others whose eyes had been gouged out, throats slit and limbs hacked off.
A child’s right to freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) is guaranteed under international law. Yet children and young people in several countries across the world experience discrimination because of their religion or belief, including in educational settings.
For example, Christian children in northern Nigeria are often obliged to adopt Muslim names in order to access education. Hindu children in Pakistan face psychological and physical abuse from classmates and teachers. Rohingya Muslim children in Burma witness their schools being knocked down. Baha’i children in Iran are regularly abused physically and verbally by teachers.
“I was beaten with sticks approximately twice a week throughout nursery and prep. After that the manner of the abuse changed. As well as physical punishment, I was mentally abused and tortured by consistently being told to convert.”
Gurinder Singh, Sikh, Pakistan, 17 years old
The right to education, like the right to FoRB, ‘is crucial to the realization of a wide array of other human rights.’ Education can facilitate social mobility, or entrench disadvantage. It can assist in creating a culture of tolerance, or contribute towards fuelling stereotyping, intolerance and extremism.
With this in mind, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has produced a new report entitled Faith and a Future: Discrimination on the Basis of Religion or Belief in Education. Through verified case studies and in depth research in five countries spanning five geographical regions, this report seeks to stimulate vital conversations, encouraging further research and necessary action to address religious discrimination in educational settings.