The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.
According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.
Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.
Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.
Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.
The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.
Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”
U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion and religious worship and prohibits the establishment of a state religion. The law treats intentional attacks directed against religiously affiliated buildings or facilities as war crimes or crimes against international humanitarian law. The law forbids public officials from interrupting religious worship. At year’s end, two Catholic priests continued to face charges of conspiracy to commit sedition over their alleged involvement in the production and release of a 2019 video linking President Rodrigo Duterte and his family to the illicit drug trade. Muslim groups expressed objections to an antiterrorism law passed in July, citing fears that it could lead to restraints in the free practice and free expression of their faith. Several Muslim lawmakers, lawyers, and citizens who said they were arbitrarily designated as members of terrorist groups, filed petitions before the Supreme Court stating that the definition of terrorism in the law infringed on the freedom of religious expression. In addition, Catholic and Protestant groups expressed concern over reported cases of church workers being publicly labeled as members or supporters of the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed insurgent wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines.
During the year, killings, bombings, and kidnappings by ISIS-affiliated and other terrorist groups continued. In May, alleged Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) terrorists killed two children, aged 10 and seven, and injured 13 others when a mortar shell landed in a residential area in Datu Saudi Ampatuan, Maguindanao, during a BIFF attack against the Armed Forced of the Philippines (AFP) on Eid al-Fitr. ISIS claimed responsibility for several attacks, including an August suicide bombing in Jolo that killed 15 people and wounded 75 others. Following the attack, the Vicar Apostolic of Jolo, Bishop Charlie Inzon, called for peace.
Violent incidents, particularly in rural areas in the south of the country where Muslims are the majority of the population, were frequently associated with interclan rido (feud) violence. Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, incidents were difficult to classify as solely based on religious identity. Religious scholars and leaders within the Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant communities stated relations among religious groups were generally amicable, but they reported some tensions between different religious and ethnic groups, especially in conflict-affected areas such as Marawi City and Sulu Province. The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos (NCMF) reported no formal incidents of discrimination during the year but stated that subtle forms of anti-Muslim societal discrimination existed throughout the country, such as private companies requiring information on religion in job applications and discriminatory comments from private citizens. Religious communities continued to participate in interreligious efforts to alleviate friction, foster connections, and address discrimination.
The U.S. embassy conducted a broad range of engagement throughout the year with the government to highlight the importance of international religious freedom. In June, the Ambassador met with leaders of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) and assured them of continued U.S. government support. Although the COVID-19 pandemic limited in-person engagements, the embassy continued to use online platforms and virtual engagements to emphasize strong U.S. support for religious freedom and protection of civil liberties for persons of all faiths. The embassy supported a virtual iftar event with 25 former participants of U.S.-sponsored exchange programs, during which participants discussed religious tolerance and its importance in building community trust. An embassy program continued to train religious leaders and youth organizations and encourage dialogue to foster social cohesion in religiously diverse areas of Mindanao.
The constitution, laws, and policies provide for religious freedom, subject to restrictions relating to public order, public health, and morality. The government continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church). It restricted speech or actions it perceived as detrimental to “religious harmony.” The government held 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the armed forces’ detention facility for refusing on religious grounds to complete mandatory national service. In December, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) detained a 16-year-old Christian male for planning to attack two mosques using a machete on the anniversary of the 2019 Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shootings. According to the ministry, the individual had been self-radicalized through online material, including the Christchurch attacker’s manifesto and ISIS videos of violence against Christians. The government stated the individual acted alone and did not try to influence or involve others in his attack plans. In February, the MHA launched an investigation into a local, unregistered chapter of the South Korean Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony (Shincheonji Church), which resulted in the deportation of five South Koreans and the dissolution of affiliated organizations. In November, authorities arrested 21 individuals for resuming activities of the church “covertly.” In June, police detained a permanent resident for posting comments to Instagram about wanting to kill Muslims. In September, police issued a warning to Workers’ Party Member of Parliament Raeesah Khan for social media posts she made in 2018 and May 2020, before she was a candidate for parliament, accusing the government of discrimination against religious and racial minorities. Authorities investigated messages individuals posted to social media that were considered offensive to Muslims and Christians, for which the individuals later apologized. The government made multiple high-level affirmations of the importance of religious harmony and respect for religious differences. It actively reached out to religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and emphasized the role of faith leaders in promoting solidarity during the pandemic. Government organizations initiated interfaith programs and funded community-led interfaith initiatives to promote religious tolerance and build interfaith understanding.
Multiple religious groups held virtual interfaith events and celebrations during the year. Religious groups and civil society organizations continued to promote interfaith and intrafaith understanding. In April, the then-Minister for Culture, Community, and Youth joined 100 members of the nongovernmental organization Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) to celebrate the annual IRO Day virtually and pledged to maintain interfaith solidarity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy officers promoted religious diversity and tolerance throughout the year. In November, the Charge d’Affaires met with Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Communication and Information and Health and chairman of the community-level organization OnePeople.sg, to discuss religious harmony and diversity. Throughout the year, the embassy used its website and social media channels to highlight outreach and demonstrate respect for the country’s religious diversity. The Charge d’Affaires delivered video speeches and best wishes for Ramadan in May, Deepavali in November, and the Christmas and Hanukkah season in December. Embassy representatives engaged with a variety of groups, including the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association (PPIS), to support religious freedom.