Like many other countries around the world, Myanmar is a multi-religious state. But religion has been a sensitive issue since its parliamentary democracy of the late 1940s until today.
Religion has been a source of division in Myanmar society. Religious favoritism was practiced during the decades of military rule. One could not be promoted as a high-ranking military officer unless he converted to Buddhism.
As democratization process continues, the different branches of government – legislature, executive and judiciary – need to take judicious steps to prevent history from repeating itself.
While the government claims religious intolerance or discrimination is non-existent in the Union of Myanmar throughout its long history, most recently reiterated by parliament speaker and former military general Shwe Mann on June 13, the reality on the ground is different.
Successive governments have shown a preference for Buddhism, which is largely practiced by the Bama or Burman, Rakhine, Shan, Mon, and Chinese populations. The 2008 constitution enshrines religious freedom with no official state religion, but it also grants broad exceptions that allow the government to restrict at will.
According to government data, Myanmar’s main religions are Buddhism (89.2 per cent), Christianity (5 per cent), Islam (3.8 per cent), Spiritualism (1.2 per cent), and Hinduism (0.5 per cent).
During the years of parliamentary democracy, the civilian government was dominated by the majority Burmans who were Buddhists. Government leaders openly donated large sums to fund and upkeep the building of Buddhist monuments.
The decades-old armed conflicts are also partly rooted on religious differences. For example, the predominantly Christian Kachin people were opposed to the introduction of Buddhism as state religion in the national parliament under Prime Minister U Nu. The Kachins construed the move as an act of “Burmese chauvinism.”
For decades, the Kachin people have lived with deep distrust towards the central government. This is one reason why the Kachin Independence Organization and its armed wing Kachin Independence Army (KIO/KIA) have been unable or hesitant to make a peace deal with the Myanmar government.
The KIO/KIA is the only major armed group that has yet to reach a permanent peace deal with the Myanmar government, despite a preliminary agreement on May 30 this year.
The Karen people have also been divided by religion, and experienced the longest armed conflict with the Myanmar government until it signed a ceasefire agreement in January 2012.
The split of Karen National Union (KNU) in 1994 was largely based on religious differences. While the majority of Karen people are Buddhists, most of the top KNU leadership were Christians.
The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was formed after allegations of religious discrimination and power abuses. With support from the Myanmar army, the DKBA fought the Karen National Liberation Army, an armed wing of the KNU, for several years.
One of the best examples of religious divide is the simmering tension between Muslims and Buddhists. In 2012, violence between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in western Myanmar saw over a hundred killed, thousands of homes destroyed and displacing thousands of people.
Though the physical violence has stopped, the tension still lingers. In May, the Rakhine state government announced an enforcement of a two-child policy on the Rohingya Muslims. It is a reinstatement of a policy implemented in two townships, Buthidaung and Maungdaw, by the then military government in its strategy to control the fast-growing Rohingya population.
The controversial policy, criticized by the United Nations as discriminatory and a violation of human rights, was supported by Khin Yi, the Minister of Immigration and Population and the most senior government official to publicly endorse the policy.
The image of Buddhist monks, widely revered in this predominantly-Buddhist country, has also been greatly tarnished by some holding divisive and radical views.
During a recent two-day meeting (from June 13 to 14) of over 200 Buddhist monks in Hmawbi, about 20 miles from Yangon, Wirathu, an ultra-nationalist Buddhist monk, proposed an inter-religious marriage law which specifies that anyone who marries a Buddhist woman must convert to Buddhism.
The proposed law also requires any Buddhist woman seeking to marry a Muslim man to first obtain permission from her parents and local officials. Those failing to comply could face up to 10 years in prison and have their property confiscated.
Though the law was just a draft, it indicates the inherent problem between Buddhists and Muslims. Such attitudes are also manifested in the 969 movement, mobilized by ultra-nationalist monks who warn about minority Muslims threatening racial purity and national security. The campaign also encourages Buddhists not to do business with Muslims and only support fellow Buddhist shops.
Myanmar needs to build a secular state where there is a separation of religion and politics. Freedom to choose any religion and respect for the religion of others needs to be protected. Freedom to practice any religion needs to be a fundamental democratic right, and not a privilege.
Failure to take necessary remedial measures could plunge the country into a society of perpetual suspicion and anxiety among the different religious groups.
This delicate but crucial issue must be addressed constitutionally as well as practically. The interests of different religious groups need to be taken into account without any prejudice or precondition.
Democratic transition and religious tolerance need to happen simultaneously. Religious freedom per se is insufficient for the survival of democracy in a country like Myanmar where religion has historically played important role in politics. There needs to be a culture of tolerance towards other religions as well.