Myanmar (Burma)

Last Updated 11 October 2021

The country was officially renamed Myanmar by the military regime in 1989, though this remains controversial with many ethnic minorities and activist groups that use its former name of Burma. A gradual democratization process led the civilian National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi to victory in the 2015 election. However, throughout this period the military retained significant constitutional privileges, including the control of several ministries and the right to appoint one fourth of the members of any representative assembly. Nevertheless, the military under Min Aung Hlaing seized power in the 2021 coup d’état.1 Since then, the increasing state of government repression and internal conflict have severely hurt activist and civilian life in the country, including for religious and non-religious minority groups. The 2014 Census shows the religious demographic statistics as 89.8% of the population being Buddhist, 6.3% Christian, 2.3% Islam, 0.5% Hindu, 0.8% Animist, 0.2% Other religion, and 0.1% no religion.2

Rating: Severe Discrimination
This country is found to be in flux, with democratic reforms taking effect, but signficiant pressure from Buddhist extremists and discrimination still taking place.

Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution3 grants limited rights to freedom of religion or belief, and freedom of expression. However, some articles in the Constitution, as well as other laws and policies, restrict those rights, and the government continues to enforce those restrictions.

Although the country has no official state religion, Article 361 of the Constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.”4 The government favors Theravada Buddhism through official propaganda and state support, including donations to monasteries and pagodas, encouragement of education at Buddhist monastic schools, and support for Buddhist missionary activities.

Religification of state and society

The use of religion as an instrument of government policy started with U Nu, who made Buddhism the state religion in 1961. Although this was later repealed, subsequent governments have at times appealed to Buddhist nationalists to shore up their rule, including in recent years.5

State-controlled media frequently depicts government officials and family members paying homage to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies at new or restored pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government publishes books on Buddhist religious instruction. However, Buddhist monks have at times also campaigned for reforms, most notably during the 2007 protests.6 Therefore, the government also tightly controls it, forbidding political activity by Buddhist monks, and keeping Buddhist temples and monasteries under close surveillance.

The government discourages Muslims from enlisting in the military, and Christian or Muslim military officers who aspired to promotion beyond the rank of major were encouraged by their superiors to convert to Buddhism. In effect, adherence or conversion to Buddhism is an unwritten prerequisite for promotion to most senior government and military ranks. The discrimination against Muslims culminated in the Rohingya genocide starting in 2016, while that against Christians continues to exacerbate the conflict with armed groups from the Karen and Kachin peoples.

Religious recognition

The government has tried to manage the religious identities in the country. Article 362 of the 2008 Constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”7 Most adherents of government-recognized religious groups are allowed to worship as they choose; however, the government imposes restrictions on certain religious activities and frequently limits freedom of religion or belief. Anti-discrimination laws do not apply to ethnic groups not formally recognized under the 1982 Citizenship Law, such as the Muslim Rohingya in northern Rakhine State.8

Citizens and permanent residents are required to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), also known as Citizenship Scrutiny Cards, which permit holders to access services and prove citizenship.9 These identification cards often indicate religious affiliation and ethnicity, but there appears to be no consistent criteria governing whether a person’s religion is indicated on the identity card.10 Citizens also are required to indicate their religion on certain official application forms for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of many ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims, face problems obtaining NRCs.11

Education and children’s rights

Buddhist doctrine remains part of the state-mandated curriculum in all government-run elementary schools. Students at these schools can opt out of instruction in Buddhism and sometimes do, but all are required to recite a Buddhist prayer daily. Some schools or teachers may allow Muslim students to leave the classroom during this recitation, but there does not appear to be a centrally mandated exemption for non-Buddhist students.

Family, community and society

Rohingya genocide

The government continues to deny citizenship status to Rohingya, claiming that they did not meet the requirements of the 1982 citizenship law, which required that their ancestors reside in the country before the start of British colonial rule in 1824. As a result, Rohingya are denied secondary and tertiary education, and employment as civil servants. Rohingya couples needed to obtain government permission to marry and faced restrictions on the number of children they could have legally. Authorities also restricted their access to healthcare.12 Communal violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims also led to the targeting of the Kaman community, which is predominantly Muslim.13 The Kaman people are recognized as an ethnic group belonging to one of Myanmar’s seven ‘national races.’ This indicates that violence was aimed at Muslims in general and forms part of a more general trend of religious intolerance that has grown in recent years.

The violence culminated in the Rohingya genocide. The military began its official campaign against the Rohingya in response to a series of attacks on its police stations by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army in October 2016.14 However, the targeting of Rohingya civilians had already led to a refugee crisis, with an estimated 25,000 persons fleeing state persecution, communal violence, and periodic massacres in early 2015.15 The estimated number of Rohingya deaths is 25,000, while that for Rohingya refugee numbers rose to 700,000 by March 2018.16 Most of these displaced persons live in the Kutupalong and Nayapara refugee camps in Bangladesh, the former being the largest of its kind in the world. The military’s actions continued to receive support from the civilian government, with Aung San Suu Kyi defending it at the International Court of Justice in December 2019.17 Despite her efforts, the ICJ ordered Myanmar to prevent genocidal acts against the Rohingya people in 2020. Though the environment left after the recent coronavirus epidemic and coup d’état have impeded international attempts to push for compliance from the military regime.

Family law

The period between the constitutional referendum in 2008 and the coup d’état in 2021 saw legislative efforts to marginalize non-Buddhists, despite the climate of liberalization. New legislation gained presidential assent in December 2014. The controversial religion and family law places massive new restrictions on family life. The law is described as:

“The result if [sic] a campaign led by a radical and extremist Buddhist group called the Association for the Protection of Race and Religion which has put forward four proposals that regulate marriage, the practice of worship, polygamy and family planning. Under the proposed norm, anyone wishing to convert to another religion will have to follow complicated bureaucratic procedures or face yet to be decided penalties. It also regulates the marriage of Buddhist women with men of other religions. These women will have to ask permission from the local authorities to celebrate the wedding, prior to it being publicly registered. The spouses may marry ‘only if’ there are no objections and, in case of violation of the law, could face up to several years in prison.”18,-marriages-and-family-life-32872.html

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Freedoms of association, assembly and expression have increased during the transition from military to civilian rule. The government passed a media law in 2013 that liberalized censorship laws, loosened internet restrictions, and granted rights to journalists.19 However, legal vagueness has been a persistent problem for the implementation of such laws in practice. The 2008 Constitution grants citizens the right to “express and publish freely their convictions and opinions” in Article 354; however, it also makes these rights subject to adherence to “community peace and tranquillity” and “public order and morality.”20 This legal vagueness enables intervention by government actors. The prospect of comprehensive reforms to the legal system have collapsed since the 2021 coup d’état.

Freedom of expression has been more intimately tied with other humanist values in activist circles since the start of protests against the 2021 coup d’état. However, this has also been met with ever greater repression by the military government, whose countermeasures have led to the estimated detainment of 7,300 and the deaths of nearly 1,000 civilians.21

“Blasphemy” laws

State actors can also turn to laws established to curb freedom of expression. Myanmar has several blasphemy laws including Section 295 (A) of the Penal Code,22 which prohibits:

“Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.”

Those convicted could face up to two years in prison.

Additionally, Section 298 criminalizes:

“Whoever, with the deliberate intention of wounding the religious feelings of any person, utters any word or makes any sound in the hearing of that person or makes any gesture in the sight of that person or places any object in the sight of that person, shall be punished~ with imprisonment of either description for a term which may be extend to one year, or with fine or with both.”

The enforcement of these standards is highly inconsistent. Blasphemy laws are mainly used to protect approved forms of Buddhism but are ignored in other cases. Several politicians, activists and artists have received prison sentences for perceived insults to the religion.23;


4, 7, 20

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