The Burmese government has made political reforms, but it did not demonstrate a trend toward either improvement or deterioration in respect to the right to religious freedom, according to a 2012 US report on religious freedom in Burma.
The government maintained restrictions on certain religious activities and limited freedom of religion, although it generally permitted adherents of government-registered religious groups to worship as they chose, the report said.
The Christian community reported a notable easing of restrictions on church building and a positive relationship with the Ministry of Religion, including the ministry’s organization of interfaith dialogues. The government also passed a new law to protect freedom of assembly and procession and provided greater access to ethnic minority areas for U.S. officials and organizations, it said.
However, it said religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
“The government continued to monitor the meetings and activities of virtually all organizations, including religious organizations, and required religious groups to seek permission from authorities before holding any large public event,” it said.
The government continued to restrict the efforts of some Buddhist clergy to promote human rights and political freedom. While some of the Buddhist monks arrested in the violent crackdown that followed prodemocracy demonstrations in September 2007 were released during the year, many remained in prison serving long sentences, it said.
“The government also actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities.
The government eased restrictions on the building of churches following the November 2010 elections,” it said.
“The government continued to monitor Muslim activities closely,” said the report. “Restrictions on worship for other non-Buddhist minority groups also continued. Although there were no new reports of forced conversions of non-Buddhists, authorities in some cases influenced the placement of orphans and homeless youth, preferring Buddhist monasteries to Christian orphanages
“Adherence or conversion to Buddhism was an unwritten prerequisite for promotion to most senior government and military ranks.”
It said widespread prejudice existed against citizens of South Asian origin, many of whom are Muslims. The government continued to refuse to recognize the Muslim Rohingya ethnic minority as citizens and imposed restrictions on their movement and marriage.
According to official statistics, approximately 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 per cent practices Christianity, and 4 percent practices Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimated the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Independent researchers place the Muslim population as being between 6 and 10 per cent. A very small Jewish community in Rangoon has a synagogue but no resident rabbi.
Religious organizations are not required to register with the government, but if a religious organization wants to engage in certain activities (religious education, charitable work, etc.), it needs to obtain government permission, said the report.
“The government discouraged proselytizing by non-Buddhist clergy, often through the use of censorship. These restrictions mostly affected some Christian denominations and Islam. The government generally has not allowed permanent foreign religious groups to operate in the country since the mid-1960s, when it expelled nearly all foreign missionaries and nationalized almost all private schools and hospitals. The government was not known to have paid any compensation in connection with these extensive confiscations,” the report said.
According to the Thailand-based Assistance Association of Political Prisoners in Burma, at the end of the year an estimated 130 monks remained in prison, many of them arrested after the September 2007 peaceful prodemocracy demonstrations.
The report said it remained extremely difficult for Muslims to acquire permission to build new or repair existing mosques, although internal maintenance was allowed in some cases. In Arakan State, government officials reportedly denied permits for the renovation of mosques with one exception: a large mosque in Maung Daw Township near the border with Bangladesh. Historic mosques in Mawlamyine, Mon State and Sittwe, Rakhine State, as well as other areas, continued to deteriorate because authorities did not allow routine maintenance.
The government openly supported Buddhist seminaries and permitted them to construct large campuses, said the report. Buddhist groups generally did not experience difficulty in obtaining permission to build new pagodas, monasteries, or community religious halls.
Government authorities continued to prohibit Christian clergy from proselytizing in some areas.
Authorities often denied Rohingya and other Muslims living in Rakhine State permission to travel for any purpose; however, permission was sometimes obtained through bribery.
"Muslims in other regions were granted more freedom to travel, but still faced restrictions. For example, Rohingyas living in Rangoon needed permission from immigration authorities to travel into and out of Rakhine State," the report said.
Muslims in Rakhine State, particularly those of the Rohingya minority group, continued to experience the severest forms of legal, economic, educational, and social discrimination. There were reports that Buddhist physicians would not provide Muslims the endorsement required by the Ministry of Health that permits Muslims to travel outside Rakhine State to seek advanced medical treatment, said the report.