Burma Religion


A large majority of the Burmese, the Arakanes (rakhine), mon, shan and pa-o as well as the majority of karenas belong to the Buddhist theravada school. Among the minority people Kachin and Chin are most Christians, mainly Baptists but also Catholics. In recent years, harassment against the Muslim minority has increased.

According to the 2014 census, 90 percent of the population are Buddhists (theravada Buddhists), while just over 6 percent are Christians, just over 2 percent are Muslims, just under 1 percent are followers of traditional indigenous religions, and 0.5 percent are Hindus.

Theravada Buddhism, the “small craft”, also occurs in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Sri Lanka. For the adherents of this direction, the Buddha’s philosophy is at the heart. The Buddha is seen as a teacher of wisdom and an example, but not as a savior figure, as is the case in Mahayana Buddhism, the “great vessel” found in, for example, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam.

Buddhist monks played an important role in the resistance to the military regime (1988–2010). In recent years, they have often gone foremost in the persecution of the country’s Muslims, not least the Rohingya people group. At the initiative of conservative monks, a number of laws were introduced during the 2010s that risk circumventing religious freedom. Among other things, it has become more difficult for a Buddhist woman and a man of another religion to enter into marriage. It has also become more difficult to convert from Buddhism to another religion. Formally, however, religious freedom prevails in the country.

Strong elements of both Christianity and traditional nature religions are found in many of the mountain peoples. The Indians in the cities are mostly Muslims but there are also Hindus and Sikhs.

Read more about Myanmar’s Muslims and the situation of the Rohingy here.

  • Countryaah: Population statistics for 2020 and next 30 years in Burma, covering demographics, population graphs, and official data for growth rates, population density, and death rates.

2018

December

New clean-up operations in Rakhine

December 20

The military announces that new “cleansing operations” are being carried out in northern Rakhine after two Buddhists were found dead with their throats cut off. On the same day, two other Buddhists were attacked by men who were said to speak Bengali (as many Rohingya speak). The operations are done in Maungdaw, an area where the military progressed hard against Rohingya last year. The Rohingya who still remain in Rakhine are said to be living in isolation. In many cases, boat refugees who have tried to leave the state have been forced back by the Myanmar military.

November

Forced relocation of Rohingy is stopped

November 15

Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s joint plans to force a number of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh to return to Myanmar are halted by the Bangladeshi government following criticism from the outside world. Nor does any single Rohingy choose to voluntarily move back. The UN and a number of human rights organizations have warned that the security situation in the Myanmar state of Rakhine is still too uncertain for the refugees. Hundreds of Rohingya refugees protest the repatriation agreement (see November 2017).

September

Prison for criticism of Suu Kyi

September 18

The chronicler Ngar Min Swe is sentenced to seven years in prison for posting “rude” posts about Aung San Suu Kyi on Facebook. Among other things, he is said to have written sexist jokes about how US President Barack Obama gives Suu Kyi a cheeky kiss on a visit to Myanmar in 2013. Ngar Min Swe previously worked for the military-backed USDP government and has since come to power in 2016 wrote critically about Suu Kyi.

The UN investigator submits a final report

September 18

The UN Independent Investigator publishes its final report on the events in Rakhine since the fall of 2017. According to the report, Myanmar’s army has used “unfathomable levels of violence” against the Rohingya minority. The investigators write that the military’s political influence must cease and that the supreme generals must be brought to justice for genocide, crimes against humanityand war crimes. The UN report contains a great deal of details about the acts of violence committed by the military against the Rohingya. According to investigators, the military’s tactics have been “constant and disproportionate in relation to the real security threats”. They write that the probable purpose was to remove the Rohingya from the country. According to the report, Aung San Suu Kyi and her government have contributed to the large scale of human rights violations in Myanmar by allowing hate speech against the Rohingy people and by using the legal system to incite the media and others who protested the abuses against the Rohingyans. UN investigators conclude that perpetrators should be tried in international court when impunityfor the military is extensive in the Myanmarian courts. The UN also advocates arms embargo and sanctions against some individuals. Myanmar’s UN ambassador describes the report as “one-sided” and “inadequate”. Myanmar is adamant that the military offensive in autumn 2017 was necessary to crush a Rohingya armed uprising.

The ICC addresses the crimes in Rakhine

September 18

The Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) opens a preliminary investigation into the charges against Myanmar for systematic abuses committed against the country’s Rohingy, including killing, sexual violence and forced displacement. The Prosecutor shall see if there is sufficient evidence to open a full-scale investigation. Two weeks earlier, the ICC ruled that the suspected perpetrators in Myanmar can be tried at the ICC even though the country is not a member of the ICC, since Bangladesh is a member. Over a million stateless Rohingy are in the neighboring country.

UN agencies may enter Rakhine

September 12

For the first time since the refugee crisis began in the fall of 2017, UN agencies UNDP and UNHCR are given permission by the authorities to enter Rakhine. They will be staying in the state for two weeks to make “confidence building” efforts in 26 villages. Exactly what this means is unclear.

Reuters reporters are jailed for seven years

September 3

Two Myanmar journalists from the Reuters news agency, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are each sentenced to seven years in prison for using classified material when revealing a massacre in the village of Din Inn in Rakhine (see January 2018). The ten Rohingy massacre is the only one recognized by the military, which has happened since the two reporters wrote about it. Both refuse a crime and say they were cheated in a trap when they got the documents from a police officer during a restaurant visit.

August

UN: Generals should be prosecuted for genocide

August 27th

In a short version of the forthcoming final report on the events in Rakhine since the fall of 2017, the UN Independent Investigator writes that Commander Min Aung Hlaing and a number of other commanders should be prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes against the Rohingya. In the report, Aung San Suu Kyi is criticized for not using her moral authority to protect the stateless group. Investigators have not been allowed to visit Myanmar, but the report is based on interviews with 900 witnesses who have moved abroad. Investigators have also reviewed video and satellite images (for the final report see September 2018).

July

New Commission for Rakhine receives criticism

31 July

The government sets up a new “independent commission” to investigate allegations of human rights violations committed in Rakhine. However, it is unclear what it should do and when it should have completed its work. Some analysts believe that yet another commission is unnecessary when it is considered that the military’s abuse is already proven. The Commission includes the Philippines for this Deputy Foreign Minister Rosario Manalo, Japan’s former UN representative Kenzo Oshima, Myanmar’s former chairman of the Constitutional Court U Mya Thein and Aung Tun Thet, the head of the government agency dealing with the crisis in Rakhine. In a newspaper interview in April 2018, Aung Tun Thet denied that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Rakhine.

Another departure from the international group

23 July

Another member of the Myanmar Government’s international panel for advice on the Rakhine crisis has left the mission. Retired politician and Ambassador Kobsak Chtuikul of Thailand justifies his departure by fearing that the group risks becoming “part of the problem”. He also says that the panel risks making the government believe that it has done enough when it is not. The group’s credibility was damaged when the US diplomat and Governor Bill Richardson left the group and delivered sharp criticism of Aung San Suu Kyi (see January 2018).

Dozens of Rohingya arrested on return

July 4th

Some 60 Rohingyis have been detained on unclear grounds in Myanmar as they tried to return there after the flight to Bangladesh. This is what the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, says when he presents a new UN report on the situation in Rakhine. Zeid questions the Myanmarian government’s ambitions with the repatriation program. Since August 2017, fewer than 200 Rohingya refugees have returned to Rakhine through the repatriation agreement with Bangladesh. Zeid says there is evidence that Rohingya houses in Rakhine are still being burned down and people are being killed in the state. More than 11,000 people have fled Rakhine so far this year, according to Zeid. Myanmar representatives call the UN report misleading and assure that they assist in the repatriation of refugees who have the right to return.

June

The military dismisses the general after sanctions

June 26

Myanmar’s Armed Forces announce that one of the five army generals who have been sanctioned by the EU for human rights violations in connection with the military offensive in Rakhine from autumn 2017 has been dismissed. The United States targeted sanctions against the same general in 2017. In the communication, the military for media reports that another of the five generals resigned in May 2018 due to health reasons and a weak performance in the service.

EU sanctions against six military commanders and one police chief

June 25

The EU is sanctioning six high-ranking military and a police chief for their role in the refugee crisis in Rakhine. The Union accuses the seven of having violated human rights, including through extrajudicial killing and sexual violence. Canada is also facing sanctions against the same military: five army generals, one Border Force commander and one police officer. The sanctions consist of travel bans and frozen assets.

May

Massacre of Hindus in Rakhine

May 22

The militant Rohingya group Arsa (the Arakan Rohingya Liberation Army) conducted a massacre of 53 Hindus (most children) in Kha Maung Seik in northern Rakhine on August 25, 2017. The human rights organization Amnesty International writes in a new report. It is the same day that Arsa carried out a series of concerted attacks on police stations in Rakhine, which led to the military offensive that has been so heavily criticized by the UN and large parts of the world (see August 2017). According to survivors of the massacre, the villagers gathered and were forced to march out of the village with their eyes, accompanied by masked people and Rohingy in ordinary clothes. The victims were then executed with knives, shovels and iron pipes. The report also shows that 46 Hindu men, women and children disappeared from the neighboring village of Ye Bauk Kyar on the same day. Villagers believe that this group was also killed by Arsa. They say the perpetrators have moved to Bangladesh. Arsa has also previously been charged with mass murder of Hindus in northern Rakhine (see September 2017). Amnesty International writes that it is as important for Arsa to be held accountable for his crimes as for the military to be investigated for his.

The violence is escalating in the north

May 12

About 20 people are killed and at least as many injured in new fighting between the military and the ethnic guerrilla TNLA (Ta’ang National Liberation Army) in the state of Shan in the north. There are reports that the fighting in the north is escalating in the media shadow of the events in Rakhine in western Myanmar. The UN estimates that almost 7,000 people have become internal refugees in northern Myanmar since April 1, in fighting between the military and the KIA but also other ethnic resistance groups.

The UN Security Council visits Rakhine

May 1

A delegation from the UN Security Council visits Myanmar. During the two-day visit, the delegation meets Aung San Suu Kyi and General Min Aung Hlaing. Following a visit to Rakhine, UN representatives again urge Myanmar’s leaders to have an independent investigation of the allegations of serious abuse against the Rohingya population in Rakhine. During the visit, General Min Aung Hlaing denies that government soldiers have been guilty of rape or other sexual offenses. Since 2012, around two-thirds of Myanmar’s approximately 1.5 million Rohingy have been expelled from the country.

April

The fighting intensifies in the north

April 27

More than 4,000 people have been forced to flee their homes in the state of Kachin in northeastern Myanmar in the past three weeks. They have escaped new strife between the KIA ethnic guerrilla and government forces, according to a source from the UN agency Ocha, which coordinates humanitarian issues. More than 100,000 people have become internal refugees since 2011, when the ceasefire collapsed between the government and the KIA (see Conflicts with ethnic minority people). According to human rights groups, the military has intensified fighting against the resistance groups in the north and northeast in the shadow of the refugee crisis in Rakhine in western Myanmar.

Seven soldiers are sentenced for the Inn Din massacre

April 10

Seven Myanmar soldiers have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for participating in the extra-judicial killing of ten Rohingy people in the village of Inn Din in September 2017 (see January 2018). It announces the country’s army chief via Facebook. The Inn Din massacre is the only abuse that the army has so far acknowledged in connection with the Rakhine crisis. This happened after two reporters from Reuters revealed what happened (see also September 2018).

Suu Kyi’s advisers receive sharp criticism

April 3

The international group that Aung San Suu Kyi has set up to advise her on the Rakhine crisis says in a statement after its second meeting that it sees a “positive development” and that it gave Suu Kyi some advice on improvement. The positive development mainly concerns a discussion initiated between the government, the UN agency UNDP and the UN Refugee Commission to begin cooperation. So far, Myanmar has shut out both of these organizations. Recommendations include investigating the allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine, increasing the fight against terrorism and improving health care in the state. In its statement after the meeting, the group does not mention the Rohingya or call on the authorities to cooperate with the UN envoy. The group was severely criticized after its first meeting in January 2018 when one of the participants, US diplomat Bill Richardson, jumped off because he felt the group was being exploited to cleanse the government and the military from responsibility over the refugee crisis. Human rights groups likeAmnesty International warns the international group that it risks being exploited by Myanmar’s political and military leaders.

The UN is allowed to visit Myanmar

2 April

The Myanmar government agrees to allow the UN Security Council to visit the country, after months of resistance. In February 2018, Myanmar rejected a similar request from the UN to make a visit to assess the situation of the Rohingya in Rakhine. However, it is unclear if UN envoys are allowed to visit the state and no date for the visit is set.

March

Win Myint takes over as president

March 30

Win Myint assumes the post of President. Among other things, he promises to work to change the constitution in a democratic direction.

New president appointed

March 28

Parliament, with a large majority, elects Win Myint from NLD as new president. He has been close to Aung San Suu Kyi for a long time. Win Myint was the House of Commons candidate for the presidential post, while Henry Van Thio was the House of Lords candidate and Acting President Myint Swe candidate for the military. Win Myint previously worked as a lawyer and was a political prisoner during the junta era. He left his last assignment as Speaker of the House of Commons shortly after Htin Kyaw resigned as Head of State. The election of Win Myint as president means that Suu Kyi can continue to be Myanmar’s true leader.

The President resigns unexpectedly

21 March

President Htin Kyaw resigns after two years in office. Htin Kyaw stands close to Aung San Suu Kyi and was named Myanmar’s president because the constitution forbade Suu Kyi to take the country’s highest office. It is not known why Htin Kyaw resigns prematurely, but the 72-year-old has previously had heart problems. A new president is to be appointed within seven days. Acting president until then becomes Vice President Myint Swe, a former general. The civil government shares power with the military, which has great influence over the economy and politics. The Army controls domestic, border and defense issues in the government and holds a quarter of the seats in Parliament.

Pressed Suu Kyi cancels public appearance

March 19

Aung San Suu Kyi cancels a public appearance with subsequent questioning on the grounds that she is not feeling well. Suu Kyi would have spoken to an audience at a think tank in Sydney, Australia, where she attended a meeting between Australia and the Asian countries. During the three-day meeting in Canberra, the refugee crisis in Rakhine has spent a large part of the time. The meeting faces no public criticism of the Myanmar leader’s silence before the events in Rakhine, but it is still clear that the refugee crisis is splitting the region. Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Muslim Malaysia, warns that refugees in the camps in Bangladesh are at risk of falling into the throes of extreme Islamistgroupings. Malaysia wants an independent Asean-led investigation into the allegations of human rights violations in Rakhine. The set question time is the only public appearance that Suu Kyi has planned. Suu Kyi, who received the Nobel Peace Prize, is strongly criticized internationally for not condemning the military’s offensive against the Rohingya in Rakhine. When Suu Kyi arrived in Australia, she was met by popular protests in the streets.

Amnesty: “military takes over Rohingya villages”

11th of March

According to a new report from Amnesty International, satellite images and testimonials show how the Myanmar military has since January 2018 demolished abandoned Rohingya villages in northern Rakhine and is building new roads and military buildings where the villages have stood. The Human Rights Organization warns that the military’s activities may lead to destruction of evidence of suspected human rights violations and that it will be impossible for Rohingya on the run to return. The takeover of land is said to be financed by the military, government or private interests. Several hundred poor Buddhist rakhine have moved into simple houses built by the military on the land where the Rohingya lived. Similar displacement of Muslims has occurred in southern and central Rakhine since the 1970s.

UN envoy: Ethnic cleansing continues

6 March

The ethnic cleansing targeting Rohingya in Myanmar continues. This is stated by UN envoy Andrew Gilmour after visiting the refugee camps in Bangladesh. According to Gilmour, the refugees testify about how bloodshed and mass rape have now been changed to “a more low-intensity campaign of terror and forced famine”. Gilmour adds that it is impossible to imagine that a Rohingya could return to Myanmar in the near future, despite the repatriation agreement signed between Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Myanmar places troops in border zone adjacent to Bangladesh

March 2

Relations with Bangladesh are further disturbed when Myanmar places military in a border zone between the countries, where thousands of Rohingya have camped. Bangladesh calls itself Myanmar’s ambassador to Dhaka and demands immediate troop retreat, but Myanmar defends its presence in the zone, which is described as a kind of no-man’s land, with militant Rohingya learning to stay there.

February

Separatists arrested for the bombing in Sittwe

February 28

The Arakan National Council (ANC), affiliated with the militant Buddhist separatist group Arakan’s Army (AA), reports to local media that Rakhine police have arrested seven people, including an ANC leader, for suspected involvement in the state’s blast attack capital Sittwe (see February 2018). The ANC denies participation in the coordinated blast, but local media say that the fact that seven Buddhists were killed when police opened fire on a crowd in Mrauk-U (see January 2018) has aroused strong feelings among the rakhine (arakan) crowd.

Peace Laureates warn Suu Kyi

February 26th

Tawakkol Karman, Shirin Ebadi and Mairead Maguire, who all received the Nobel Peace Prize, are calling on Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi to “wake up” and take a stand against the violence directed against the Rohingya. The three women warn Suu Kyi that she might otherwise face trial for genocide. The joint statement comes after the three visited the refugee camps in Bangladesh where close to one million Rohingya are forced to live. Karman, Ebadi and Maguire say it is undoubtedly a genocide carried out by Myanmar’s government and military. The UN has described the systematic violence against Rohingya in Rakhine as ethnic cleansing and a possible genocide, but has not accused the military of war crimes. Several critics demand that Suu Kyi’s Peace Prize be taken back, but the Norwegian Nobel Committee says it is not possible and that Suu Kyi received the prize for the democracy struggle she once waged against Myanmar’s then military dictatorship. Myanmar’s leadership has dismissed all charges and stopped UN investigators from visiting Rakhine. Myanmar’s and Bangladesh’s joint plan for repatriating the refugees has stalled as the move back must be voluntary and security in Rakhine cannot be guaranteed. Meanwhile, dozens, sometimes hundreds of Rohingy, continue to migrate to Bangladesh each week with testimonies of torture, arson and murder from Myanmar. According to the eyewitnesses, the crimes are committed by Buddhist locals.

Bomb attack in Sittwe in Rakhine

February 24th

Three explosive charges detonate at various locations in Rakhine’s central Sittwe early in the morning. A policeman is lightly injured. A detonation takes place at a senior official’s residence. The other bombs explode at an office building and on a road to a beach. In the state there are resistance groups against the central power both within the rakhine and Rohingy people. However, bomb attacks in cities are relatively uncommon. Three undetected explosive charges are also found by the police.

Bombing against bank in Shan

February 21st

Two female bank officials are killed and more than 20 people injured when an explosive charge detonates in a bank in the city of Lashio in the state of Shan in northern Myanmar. It is not known who or who is behind the attack. In Shan, there has long been a rebellion against the central power (read more here).

Two rebel groups enter into a ceasefire with the government

February 13

Two more rebel groups sign the ceasefire agreement with the government: New Mon State Party (NMSP) and Laho’s Democratic Union (Lahu Democratic Union, LDU). Thus, 10 of 17 rebel groups have signed the agreement.

Gasoline bombs are thrown at Suu Kyi’s residence

February 1st

A petrol bomb is thrown at the site around Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence in Rangoon. Suu Kyi is not home at the moment and no other person is harmed, a government official says. A man who is said to be mentally ill is arrested by the police. It is unusual for similar events in Myanmar and the motive behind the crime is unknown. In Myanmar, Suu Kyi is still popular with the large Burmese majority, despite the fact that criticism against her has been widespread since the military offensive in Rakhine began in summer 2017.

January

Discharge from Suu Kyi’s review team

January 25

US diplomat Bill Richardson leaves the work of the international group commissioned by Aung San Suu Kyi to investigate the allegations of human rights crimes committed in Rakhine during the military offensive in the fall of 2017. Former Governor Richardson accuses Suu Kyi of lacking “moral leadership” in question about the situation of the Rohingy, saying that he no longer wants to join a working group that risks only becoming part of an attempt by the Myanmar leadership to conceal the real causes of the mass escape of Rohingy out of the country. Representatives of the Myanmar government, however, say that Richardson was in fact kicked out of the group and that he insulted Suu Kyi in his farewell letter.

Repatriation is pushed forward

January 23

The relocation of refugees from Bangladesh back to their home country will not begin at the end of January 2018 as previously planned, Bangladeshi authorities announce. The reason is that both countries have not been able to prepare enough to start repatriation. Among other things, it is bad for housing for those returning, as many homes have been burnt down. Refugees and individual aid organizations also warn that the security situation in the state of Rakhine, where the refugees are going, is poor.

Seven dead when police shoot at crowd in Rakhine

January 16

The police shoot into a crowd of about 5,000 Buddhists belonging to the rakhine (arakan) people group. It happens when people try to enter a public administrative building in the city of Mrauk U, which is located in a relatively quiet part of Rakhine. The result will be seven casualties and among dozens injured there are also many police officers. The people had gathered to celebrate a Buddhist ceremony and it is not known why the situation was degenerating in violence. However, many within the population group have a strongly negative view of the police force, which is dominated by the majority of Burmese people.

Time frame ready for repatriation

January 15

Myanmar and Bangladesh have agreed to send 1,500 Rohingy people back from the refugee camps in Bangladesh to Myanmar every week for two years. The agreement does not specify when the repatriation should begin. Earlier, the parties said the end of January 2018. According to the Bangladeshi Foreign Minister, Bangladesh proposed that 15,000 Rohingyis be returned each, but Myanmar did not agree. The current agreement means that 156,000 of the 650,000 Rohingya will return in the next two years. Both countries have also agreed that all repatriation must take place on a voluntary basis.

Suu Kyi: “positive rise”

January 13

Aung San Suu Kyi calls the recognition of the army a “positive step”, state media reports. Suu Kyi says it is a “new step taken by our country”. “A country’s legal security is a matter for that country. It is a positive signal that we are taking steps towards taking that responsibility ”. The human rights organization Amnesty International describes the killing of Inn Din as “the tip of an iceberg” in comparison to the abuses that have been carried out since the offensive began. The militant group Arsa welcomes “wholeheartedly” the recognition and adds on twitter that the ten killed Rohingi found in the mass grave were not members of Arsa and had no connection with the group.

The army recognizes participation in massacres

January 10

The army chief’s office announces for the first time that government soldiers have participated in the violence that has been going on in the state of Rakhine since August 2017 and has driven more than 650,000 Muslim Rohingya on the run to Bangladesh. The soldiers helped when a Buddhist crowd killed ten Rohingyans, whom the army chief’s office calls “Bengali terrorists”, in the village of Inn Din on September 2, 2017. According to the army, the victims belonged to the militant Rohingya group Arsa, but villagers now in Bangladesh testify that they killed were civilian villagers without ties to any armed group. The bodies should afterwards have been thrown into a mass grave. The military’s recognition comes after two Myanmar journalists from Reuters wrote about the massacre. The journalists are now detained, suspected of having used sex-covered material.

Arsa attacks army vehicles

January 6

After a relatively quiet period in Rakhine, the armed Rohingya group Arsa launches an attack on a military vehicle in the northern part of the state. Two army soldiers and one driver are injured. In August 2017, a series of attacks from Arsa led to the military entering Rakhine and during the fall an offensive was carried out which led to 650,000 Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh. According to a report from the think tank International Crisis Group in December 2017, Arsa is striving to regroup to continue to play a role, and there is a risk that the group will attract desperate Rohingy in the refugee camps.

Burma Religion

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