I was honored to be on board with a group of parliamentarians across the continent on a Myanmar Mission. Although we were made out of different political ideologies, various faiths and culture, we were united in our stand for freedom of religion and belief. The uniting factor was our passion and enthusiasm to see the world free from persecution of religious beliefs and discrimination based on race and religion. I never knew my comrades in the mission before this but our passion has made it easy for us to get acquainted and get in action as a team.
It’s not easy to conclude with a black and white answer in the case of Myanmar and the Rohingya’s plight in particular but the framework of our understanding was built upon the UN report and other resources of information on religious persecution and human rights perspectives. Nevertheless, we were very careful not to have pre-conceived ideas on the issue of freedom of religion in Myanmar. That was why we conducted meetings with civil society organizations (CSO) and individuals who provided us new perspectives on the issue of rights to freedom of belief.
We also had the opportunity to meet the relevant ministries and officials from the official point of view. Our chance to meet with a few MPs from the ruling party also provided us with a bigger outlook of what is going on from a legaslative view. We also had a good prespective from the party in power who spoke from the party’s stand on the related issue.
We also had a brief discussion after every meeting to conclude our understanding and revisited our framework of understanding for fresh additional thoughts. We sometimes challenged our own perpectives or even explored new possibilities for our fact finding mission.
My reflections and thoughts on Myanmar religious feeedom and belief in regard to minorities’ rights are as follows:
1. The official stand negates any form of religious persecution, simply because the Myanmar Union State Constitution provided such provisions on the freedom of belief and religion. Let to stand, these do not answer the dire state of the Rohingya minority (mainly Muslims) and the Chin (mainly Christians) who, from the actual record, have suffered discrimination and persecution on religious grounds.
2. The inconsistencies of constitutionally-enshrined freedom of belief appeared in the contradictory policies and other laws that to some extent lead to selective judgement in the case of religious issues.
3. Buddhism, although not stated as the official religion, commands a high respect as the raison d’être to the Union. I have no qualms about such status as historical narratives have a strong influence over the state constitution, but it should not intrude into the speheres of freedom of other faiths and universal human rights guidelines.
4. Rakhine State, where the majority of the Rohingya reside, has many narratives to the ordinary public, CSO’s and the officials. There were attempts to dictate a common understanding by the government. As such Rohingya Muslims were redefined the name to ‘Bengalis’, and were also related to illegal border crossings from Bangladesh, which is the major problem faced by the auhorities. Those who refused to be vetted for the verification process for citizenship are considered illegals. Many Rohingya refused such an attempt and so the problem escalated. It is undeniable some illegal immigrants posed a problem to the authorities.
5. The rise of extreme religious organizations such as Ma Ba Tha added fuel to the existing problem. What was worse is that the previous government kept numbed over the extreme actions taken by Ma Ba Tha by persecuting Muslims and Christians alike. The fear is that a similar reaction by Muslims would incite violence between followers of the faith.
6. The new government, formed by ASSK’s landfall victories inherited a whole lot of baggage handed down by the previous junta government. It will not be easy for the new democratic government as there are a lot of priorities for her reform agenda on Myanmar. The National Reconciliation project she is embarking on is hoped to include the stop to religious violence and opens up more space for freedom of religion.
7. Freedom of religion is essential for the aspired developement of the nation. The more freedom we give, the more prosperous the nation will be. It will be a great opportunity for the new blooming democracy in Myanmar to grab such an opportunity.
8. Incidents where religious minorities’ place of worship have been intruded upon, demolished, or action deemed insulting to the main faith (i.e. Buddhism) have been reported. It is feared that such incidents will dampen the hope for a greater freedom of faith.
9. Attempts by individuals to propose a law known as The National Harmony Bill, modelled after the Singaporean law, has yet to see the light. Such a law is needed because the public must be aware of the need to live peacefully among different faiths.
10. CSOs must put a concerted effort together in educating the public. It is observed that the CSOs have not combined their effort in unity; rather they are scattered whilst they pursue common objectives.
To conclude, FoRB in Myanmar is not just about religious persecution although the surface of it emerges in such a form. The underlying problems are deep rooted in racial, political and security problems and the influence of religious extremism. The world perceives it strongly as religious violence and consequently it affected the effort worldwide to foster harmony between different faiths, as it aggravates the relationships in other parts of the world where the presecuted minorities are the majorities.
It is hoped that this is not the first nor the last mission for us as the process will take a longer time for FoRB to prevail in Myanmar and in other parts of the world. I look forward to more missions for peace and harmony for the people of the world.
Dr. Mujahid Yusof Rawa
MP of Malaysia
Dr. Mujahid Bin Haji Yusof Rawa, Ph.D is a Malaysian MP and VP for the Amanah Party (National Trust Party). He is active in freedom of religion through legislative efforts and interfaith dialogue, and advocates for human rights. Dr. Rawa is an Excecutive Member of the Parliamentarian Union of Islamic Countries, and Chairman of World Heritage Mosque in Penang, Malaysia. He is the authour of few books available in Bahasa Malaysia and translated into English, such as Engaging Christianity: A Travelogue of Peace, and Aren’t We All Malaysians. Mr. Rawa is married with three kids.