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Myanmar - Religion

The country has an area of 261,970 square miles. The Human Development Report under the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the International Monetary Fund estimate the country's population to be 50 million. Buddhism coexists with astrology, numerology, fortune telling, and veneration of indigenous pre-Buddhist era deities called "nats." Buddhist monks, including novices, number more than 400,000 and depend on the laity for their material needs, including clothing and daily donations of food; Buddhist nuns are fewer in number. The principal minority religious groups include Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations), Muslims (mostly Sunni), Hindus, and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. According to official statistics, almost 90 percent of the population practices Buddhism, 4 percent Christianity, and 4 percent Islam. These statistics almost certainly underestimated the non-Buddhist proportion of the population. Independent researchers placed the Muslim population at between 6 and 10 percent. A small Jewish community in Rangoon has a synagogue but no resident rabbi.

The country is ethnically diverse, with some correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Burman ethnic group and also among the Shan, Arakanese, and Mon ethnic minorities. Christianity is dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Protestant Christian groups reported recent rapid growth among animist communities in Chin State. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. Citizens of Indian origin, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region, predominantly practice Hinduism or Islam, although some are Christian. Islam is practiced widely in Rakhine State and in Rangoon, Irrawaddy, Magwe, and Mandalay Divisions, where some Burmese, Indians, and ethnic Bengalis practice the religion. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions. Traditional indigenous beliefs are practiced widely among smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions. Practices drawn from those indigenous beliefs persist in popular Buddhist rituals, especially in rural areas.

The government tended to view religious freedom in the context of potential threats to national unity or central authority. The government imposes restrictions on certain religious activities and limits freedom of religion, although generally permitted adherents of government-registered religious groups to worship as they chose. The government actively promotes Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities. Christian and Islamic groups continue to struggle to obtain permission to repair places of worship or build new ones. The regime closely monitors Muslim activities. Restrictions on worship for other non-Buddhist minority groups also continue.

Although the country has no official state religion, the government continued to show a preference for 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. In practice promotions to senior positions within the military and civil service were reserved for Buddhists. Adherence or conversion to Buddhism was an unwritten prerequisite for promotion to senior government and military ranks. All senior level officers of the armed forces are Buddhists.

State-controlled media frequently depicted government officials and family members paying homage to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing ostensibly voluntary "people's donations" of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. State-owned newspapers routinely featured front-page banner slogans quoting from Buddhist scriptures. The government has published books of Buddhist religious instruction.

The government restricted the activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (Sangha), although some monks have resisted such control. Based on the 1990 Sangha Organization Law, the government has banned any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban were punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Monk Coordination Committee ("Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee" or SMNC), the members of which were indirectly elected by monks.

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

The government discouraged proselytizing by non-Buddhist clergy. These restrictions most affected some Christian denominations and Islam. The government generally has not allowed permanent foreign religious groups to operate 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.

Although authorities appear to have moved away from a campaign of forced conversion, by 2010 there continued to be evidence that other means were being used to entice non-Buddhists to convert to Buddhism. During the previous reporting period, Chin Christians reported that local authorities operated a high school that only Buddhist students could attend and promised government jobs to the graduates. Christians had to convert to Buddhism to attend the school. An exile Chin human rights group claimed local government officials placed the children of Chin Christians in Buddhist monasteries, where they were given religious instruction and converted to Buddhism without their parents' knowledge or consent.

Wirathu contributed to fueling the rise of Buddhist nationalist groups, such as the 969 movement and the Committee to Protect Race and Religion [which goes by the acronym Ma Ba Tha], both of which spawned a network of smaller organizations inspired by messages of intolerance and Islamophobia. He stirred up hatred against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, helping push the narrative that they are not citizens of Myanmar but immigrants from Bangladesh. Wirathu and other political Buddhist monks "framed the discourse" around the protection of Buddhism and the need to be afraid of others, The Myanmar nationalist monk Wirathu has long used vile language to make a point. In January 2015, he called Yanghee Lee, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, a "whore." In an interview with 60 Minutes that aired in October the same year, he said that Muslims, who make up less than 5 percent of the population here, were defecating on the country.

In March 2017 religious officials banned Wirathu from preaching for one year after he took to Facebook to thank the suspects accused of murdering government adviser Ko Ni in January 2017 and, in a later incendiary speech, told women it was better to marry dogs than Muslims.

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Page last modified: 31-03-2017 19:44:05 ZULU