Religious Freedom in Difficult Places

Brett G. Scharffs
Brett G. Scharffs

Brett G. Scharffs is the Rex E. Lee Chair, Professor of Law, and the Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

Seng Mai Aung is a Program Officer for Myanmar at the Institute for Global Engagement

Background

Myanmar is, and for several years has been, included on the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom Annual Report’s “blacklist” as a Country of Particular Concern. In 2012, an incident in Rakhine State occurred between Rakhine Buddhists and Muslims, escalating into nationwide religious conflicts between different faith groups. Then came the rise of the Buddhist Nationalist Group, Ma Ba Tha also known as the Association for Protection of Race and Religion. This Ma-Ba Tha movement promoted fear of being invaded by foreign religions and influence along with damaging relations between other religious groups. Social media played an important role in spreading false news and hate speech and further dividing people of different faiths.

Seng Mai Aung

A reconciling peacebuilding effort was introduced—the religion and rule of law training program—to assist Myanmar in promoting religious freedom. In 2015, the Institute for Global Engagement in partnership with the International Center for Law and Religion Studies of Brigham Young University Law School were invited to give the religion and rule of law training in Yangon by local religious leaders providing them with resources, tools, and lessons learned from similar international cases.

Identifying Local Stakeholders

For the successful implementation of the religion and rule of law training programs in specific regions, identifying key stakeholders was the first pressing matter. Due to the sensitivity of the topic and how the subjects of “religion” or “rule of law” are perceived, it was vital to identify key stakeholders who understood the risks and benefits of such programs, recognized the importance of the topics, and were willing to get involved in the process of implementing the program in their city. To identify the stakeholders, it was important to talk to people who knew the area before approaching any stakeholders. It was also essential to approach them humbly and respectfully that included a willingness to listen to their challenges and needs.

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Webinar: Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes

Webinar Advancing Religious Freedom in Different Political Regimes held on 7 June 2021 to highlight opportunities and successful stories, as well as challenges and failures in promoting religious freedom globally. Each panelist reported on their work in respective political regimes, including Myanmar, Iraq, Turkey, and the work that the International Center for Law and Religion Studies has done with different political regimes.

Brett Scharffs concluded with these remarks: “We have to care for each other in order for us to claim that [human dignity is] universal…. There are ways of advocating that are uniquely Western, but that doesn’t undermine the universality of the values of human dignity. Everyone, everywhere, cares about their own freedoms. These are human values that really are universal even though our models of advocacy can take on cultural characteristics. And sometimes we have to be careful about that.”

Panelists: Brett G. Scharffs, Seng Mai AungJán Figeľ, Mine Yildirim, Knox Thames, Elizabeth Clark.

Moderated by Dmytro Vovk.

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Myanmar: No Religious Liberty in an Unequal Milieu

Farzana Mahmood is an advocate of Bangladesh Supreme Court and one of the co-founders and Executive Director of Bangladesh Manobadhikar O Poribesh Andolon Foundation (BAMAPA), an NGO dedicated to uphold and promote the basic human rights and environment rights of the peoples of the Bangladesh

The conditions of religious minorities in Myanmar especially, Christians (6.2 percent, particularly Chin, Kachin, Karen people), Muslims (4.3 percent, Rohingya, Malay), and Hindus (0.5 percent, mainly Burmese Indians) deteriorated with the military coup in 1962. During the successive five brutal decades following the coup, the military exploited the religious and ethnic diversity of the country and ruled by dividing the communities, pitting Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims against each other.

However, with the onset of civilian governments in 2011, the conditions of the religious and ethnic minorities in the country failed to improve. In 2017, more than 750,000 Rohingya Muslim minorities of the Rakhine state fled Myanmar to Bangladesh when the military started destroying and burning houses, killing Rohingyas, and raping their women.

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