SEVEN Muslim men have reportedly been jailed in Burma (Myanmar) for three months for organising Muslim prayers in the street about a year ago, after local Islamic schools were shuttered prior to the holy month of Ramadan.
According to the UK-based Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) the men were sentenced on Monday under Burma’s War and Village Tract Administration Law which prohibits public gatherings, for organising a public prayer on the street in Tharketa Township in the country’s largest city of Yangon back in April 2017.
“This case and the events which led to it all demonstrate a societal and systemic bias against Muslims and minorities inside of Burma, said the organisation’s Executive Director, Kyaw Win in a statement.
“These men were denied a place to worship by the authorities intentionally trying to prohibit their religious freedoms.”
In April last year, mobs of far-right Buddhist nationalists swarmed two madrassas (Islamic boarding schools) in Tharketa, demanding that the local authorities shut them, which they subsequently did. With Ramadan beginning a month later, the local Muslim community continued to hold their prayers on the street – often in the pouring rain.
Authorities halted public prayers involving around 50 Muslims in late May as “threat to stability and rule of law”, with the seven men in question later charged.
“When some men took it upon themselves to continue practicing their religion outside in the rain because they were not permitted a place to worship, they were punished for this as well,” said Kyaw Win on Tuesday.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last year that “Burmese local officials’ craven capitulation to mob demands to shutter two Muslim schools is the latest government failure to protect Burma’s religious minorities.”
Around 90 percent of Burma’s population is Buddhist, while Muslims represent an estimated 4 percent.
The country’s transition to democracy from military dictatorship has seen ongoing legal discrimination against minorities, as well as the emergence of vocal Buddhist ultranationalist groups who call for violence against the Muslim population in Burma – particularly the Rohingya.
Humanitarian agencies have said more than 671,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees have fled the country’s northern Rakhine State into Bangladesh in since Aug 25 last year in response to so-called “clearing operations” by the Tatmadaw army – violence described by the United Nations as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing.
Last September, BHRN released a report in which it documented rising persecution of Muslims elsewhere in Burma including authorities making it difficult for Muslims to obtain identity cards and rebuild damaged mosques. Moreover, it noted the spread of so-called “Muslim-free” villages across Burma.
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The United States’ Commission on International Religious Freedom reported in 2017 that the National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung San Suu Kyi had allowed “systematic, egregious, and ongoing violations of freedom of religion or belief to continue.”
“It has been a long time since we have been able to build new mosques in this country,” said Kyaw Khin, head of a national Muslim group told HRW last year. “Others are destroyed in violence, and some are closed by the government.”
The international community should view the imprisonment of the seven men as an “early warning” of worsening oppression against Muslims and other minorities in Burma, BHRN said.
“It is hard to imagine any intention the authorities might have other than to make religious freedom nearly impossible for Muslims,” Kyaw Win added.