Ward-level officials' threats to charge and prosecute Muslims who organized and participated in a public prayer session on May 31 in Thaketa township are further evidence of the Myanmar government's failure to protect religious freedoms.

Since that day, local police and ward officials in Yangon have been consistently harassing and threatening members of the Muslim community with criminal charges and fines because they dared assemble in the street to hold prayers during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. These actions by local officials are an outrage that should be urgently overruled by senior leaders in General Administration Department, or failing that, the Minister of Home Affairs.

If the Ministry refuses to act within days to cease these threats of charges, then as de facto head of government, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi should step in to protect freedom of conscience and religion.

Human Rights Watch also calls for immediate action to revoke the government's discriminatory laws and regulations on the practice of religion that are frequently applied to minority religious communities.

Obscure, discriminatory regulations used to prevent the construction or repair of religious structures, such as mosques and Christian churches, should be rescinded immediately. Mosques and madrassahs that have been forcibly shuttered should be immediately re-opened, and religious believers should not be threatened or criminally charged simply for exercising their fundamental right to observe and practice their religion.

The right to freedom of conscience, religion, and prayer is a universal human right. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD-led government should realize the world is watching how they handle this extremely worrisome situation, and will not accept excuses or inaction.

Erosion of religious freedom

During the British colonial period and early years after independence in 1948, Muslims held high positions in Burma’s government and civil society. They were in the forefront of the fight for independence from the British. After independence, Muslims continued to play a prominent role in the country’s business, industrial, and cultural activities. Many were public servants, soldiers, and officers. After General Ne Win seized power in 1962, he initiated the systematic expulsion of Muslims from the government and army. No written directive bars Muslims from entry or promotion in the government, but that has long been the practice. In 2001, Human Rights Watch documented anti-Muslim violence in various parts of the country that left dozens of mosques and madrasas destroyed.

According to government census data collected in 2014, Muslims make up just over 2 percent of the population of Burma, which is about 90 percent Buddhist. However, that figure does not include more than one million Muslims who are Rohingya, a largely stateless ethnic group living primarily in Rakhine State.

Christians make up just over 6 percent of the country’s population.

Burma is obligated under international human rights law to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the right to express religious belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching. Protection of this right must be done in a nondiscriminatory way. The right is subject to limitations for the protection of public safety, order, health, or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Editor: Edward White