At Large

Religious Liberty’s ‘Flicker of Progress’

Assessing the situation in Burma after the Clinton mission.

By 12.12.11

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Dwight Eisenhower went to Korea and Hillary Clinton went to Burma. True, it's not quite the same. Nevertheless, Clinton recent trip was almost as dramatic, coming after Washington's lengthy campaign to isolate the brutal military regime that has been running the impoverished nation since 1962.

Despite well-founded skepticism of the commitment to reform in Naypyidaw -- a city created at great cost apparently in the belief that locating the capital far away from the people would help protect the regime -- President Barack Obama was right to suggest that "After years of darkness, we've seen flickers of progress." The Clinton visit may help spur a reform process capable of ultimately transforming Burma, also known as Myanmar.

There long has been no hope. Although the junta's membership changed over time, its deadly policies did not vary. With equal ruthlessness the regime suppressed the urban democracy movement, symbolized by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, and battled ethnic guerrillas, such as the Chin, Karen, Shan, and Wa, seeking autonomy in the east. The result has been thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of thousands of refugees in bordering countries, and millions of displaced people within Burma. Tens of millions of Burmese languish in poverty.

The U.S. and Europe tried economic sanctions, but China, India, and most other Asian states felt no compunction about dealing with Naypyidaw. Human rights be damned when there are profits to be made. While the Burmese people suffered, well-connected Burmese elites prospered. And the regime went on doing what it did best: killing, imprisoning, punishing, and oppressing.

Now come "flickers of progress." The election last fall was a fraud, and the new "civilian" government initially seemed little better. However, in recent months some political prisoners have been freed, controls over the media and labor unions have been relaxed, Suu Kyi has met with government officials, and restrictions on her party have been lifted. Equally significant, Burmese leaders seem increasingly nervous about Beijing's tight embrace.

Nevertheless, the reforms might be a façade. And the latest engagement boomlet might fade as have others in the past. Still, so long as the two countries are talking, Washington should promote democracy and individual liberty. And the administration should emphasize Naypyidaw's obligation to end the army's vicious military campaigns against ethnic groups seeking autonomy and related attacks on religious freedom.

Suu Kyi's activities long have captured the West's attention. And she is a worthy symbol of the Burmese people's desperate struggle for liberty. But a variety of ethnic groups have been battling even longer for the autonomy promised them when Britain released its colony to independence. Some, such as the Chin, Karen, Karenni, and Naga, are heavily or largely Christian. While the junta's repression of urban democracy protestors has been brutal, its campaign against ethnic freedom forces has been murderous. The army has routinely conscripted civilians as porters, killed and raped ethnic peoples, destroyed villages and displaced residents, and sown land-mines to create territorial dead zones. Documenting Naypyidaw's depredations against just the Karen and Karenni is the group Christian Freedom International, which has been active in Burma for years.

Beyond these wars, Naypyidaw long has been one of the world's most notorious religious persecutors. According to the latest State Department report on religious liberty, "The government imposed restrictions on certain religious activities and limited freedom of religion." Although members of officially recognized faiths are allowed to worship, "Religious activities and organizations were subject to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly." The government monitored religious activities and limited public events. Buddhists involved in the 2007 democracy demonstrations continued to suffer severe punishment.

Moreover, added State, "The government also actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among ethnic minorities. Christian groups continued to struggle to obtain permission to repair places of worship or build new ones." The regime favored Buddhist institutions in the placement of orphans, and based government and military promotion on adherence to Buddhism. 

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom long has rated Burma as a County of Particular Concern. The Commission's latest report warned that the regime "severely restricts religious practice, monitors the activity of all religious organizations, and perpetrates violence against religious leaders and communities, particularly in ethnic minority areas." The USCIRF also pointed to "the severe repression and forced relocation of the Rohingya Muslim minority; the banning of independent Protestant 'house church' activities; and the abuses, including forced labor, relocations, and destruction of religious sites, against ethnic minority Protestants."

Compass Direct News, which covers religious persecution, reports continuing assaults on Christians despite the (admittedly modest) positive steps in the capital. In mid-October in the Kachin State, for instance, the army burned down two churches, detained several leaders and congregants, and insisted that all religious gatherings required government permission. Kawdin Lahpai, editor-in-chief of the Kachin News Group, explained that this "reflects the long-time policy" of the regime.

While any genuine reform will take time since repression is so deeply embedded in the system, it appears that that whatever the currents of change in Naypyidaw, no waves have reached Christians and other disfavored faiths elsewhere. As the Commission explained when writing to Secretary Clinton last month, "serious human rights violations continue to occur daily in Burma and any recent positive steps can easily be reversed." 

The panel urged the secretary to maintain pressure on Naypyidaw to release political prisoners and stop ethnic conflicts, as well as to "end attacks and discrimination against minority religious groups, and improve religious freedom and related human rights." The Obama administration should include religious liberty in any dialogue with Burma over human rights.

No one knows if this time the thugs who rule this tragically poor and oppressed nation are really prepared to yield power. History suggests much reason for pessimism, but many dissidents, including Suu Kyi, are allowing themselves to hope for a different, more positive future. Hopefully they are right.

Washington should encourage positive developments and expand engagement if the regime broadens its reforms. In doing so the administration should remember the first liberty. Only if the Burmese authorities come to respect freedom conscience in religion are they likely to respect freedom of conscience in politics and elsewhere.

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About the Author
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author and editor of several books, including The Politics of Plunder: Misgovernment in Washington (Transaction).