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Human rights, and specifically religious liberty, are increasingly under attack in Myanmar (Burma), following a military coup, according to a country update published by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Nov. 4.

The predominantly Buddhist nation had seen some gains in democracy and human rights in the past decade, but that progress came to a halt when leaders of the Tatmadaw, the nation’s military, took control of the government.

“Alongside the religious freedom violations, as of August 29, there have been 95 journalists arrested, including 45 held in detention following a wider crackdown on dissent,” the USCIRF report said. “The Tatmadaw has also arrested and tried politicians, including Leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and killed at least 1,100 people who have protested the actions of the military junta.”

Claims of election fraud emerged from opposition leaders who lost at the ballot box to President Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD). The military, not wanting to lose further control of the nation, lent its support to the disproven election fraud claims and ultimately carried out the takeover in February 2021.

Religious minorities, most notably the predominantly Rohingya people, have not fared well throughout Myanmar’s history.

Despite democratic progress under Suu Kyi’s and the NLD’s governance, the Rohingya persecution continued at the hands of the military under her administration. Also, the Rohingya have never been recognized as citizens by the nation, making them the largest stateless people group in the world.

A September 2018 UN report documented the numerous human rights violations committed by the Tatmadaw, including the continued persecution of Rohingya. “Peace will not be achieved while the Tatmadaw remains above the law,” said Marzuki Darusman, chair of the fact-finding mission that compiled the report. “The Tatmadaw is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.”

An August 2021 UN report estimates that nearly one million Rohingya are currently living as refugees and asylum seekers in neighboring nations, with the majority in Bangladesh. There are also more than 100,000 displaced Rohingya still living within Myanmar but forced to take refuge outside the Rakhine state.

“The Tatmadaw continues to engage in armed conflict with other ethnic communities, targeting houses of worship for minority faith communities, including Baptists and Roman Catholics, and using religious nationalism as a justification for its interventions,” the USCIRF report said.

Such treatment of religious minorities has continued and increased under Tatmadaw rule, but even Buddhists who speak out against the military junta have increasingly faced persecution and retribution, USCIRF noted.

The Chin and Kachin states, which include areas in which a majority of the population is Christian, have been attacked by military forces.

This includes two February raids on Baptist churches in which the pastor and/or members were arrested, as well as a Catholic church struck by artillery fire while people were taking refuge inside and a June airstrike that damaged another Catholic church.

Such raids and persecution have increased throughout 2021, with Voice of America reporting that “in August and September, at least seven churches were damaged or destroyed by military shelling and small arms fire.”

In mid-October, two Baptist churches were set on fire. In addition to destroying churches, several pastors have been detained, arrested and killed, VOA reports.

Despite U.N. reports and other groups labelling the actions toward the Rohingya as genocide or ethnic cleansing, the U.S. has not made such a declaration.

The Biden administration has largely followed the approach taken by the Trump administration of issuing sanctions and condemning the violence without making a specific declaration of genocide.

Legislation is under consideration in the U.S. Congress that, if passed, would set a deadline for the Biden administration to determine if genocide or crimes against humanity have taken place in Myanmar (Burma).

“The international community has various means to ensure that Burmese officials are held accountable for the ongoing and severe atrocities committed by the Burmese military,” the USCIRF report said. “A future, stable and just Burma hinges on ending impunity and ensuring accountability for past atrocities committed against religious communities.”

The full report is available here.

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