Dix Newell

Myanmar has no official state religion. However, the Constitution recognizes the special position of Buddhism in the country. The great majority of the population practice Buddhism. It is estimated that 90% of the population of Myanmar are Buddhists. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion. Some sources suggest that the non-Buddhist population is underestimated, and put the Christian and Muslim populations at about 8% each.  

The government shows a preference for Buddhism and provides financial support to the religion.  Promotions to senior positions in the military and the civil service are reserved for Buddhists.  However, there are only nine state-recognized monastic orders of Buddhist monks. The government bans any organization of monks that are not part of the nine monastic orders.  Violations of the ban are punishable by criminal penalties, and the monks associated with the banned orders are subject to immediate public defrocking. The two largest monastic orders are Thudhamma and Shwegyin Nikaya. The nine recognized orders must submit to the authority of the State Clergy Coordination Committee (“Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee” or SMNC). The members of the SMNC are elected by monks, and are under the control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The SMNC has been influential in curbing some of the recent monk-instigated violence against minority Muslims. The SMNC prohibited the creation of formal organizations that aimed at isolating Muslims through boycotts. The spread of violence coincided with the rise of the Buddhist nationalist 969 movement, which was led by U Wirathu.  

The government prohibits Buddhist monks from preaching political sermons, from associating with or joining political parties, and from joining in peaceful political demonstrations. The military retains jurisdiction to try monks in military courts. Religious leaders of all sects are forbidden from running for political office, and members of religious orders from voting.  

All government-run elementary schools in Myanmar must have, as part of the curriculum, studies in Buddhist doctrine.  While there is freedom for students to opt out of instruction in Buddhism, all students must recite a Buddhist prayer daily.  There may be some teachers who will allow Muslim students to leave the classroom in order to avoid the recitation of the required prayer; however, this practice is not an exemption that is government approved. 

The principal minority religious groups in Myanmar comprise Christian, Muslims and Hindus. Christians (Baptists, Roman Catholics and Anglicans, and a few other minor Protestant denominations) comprise about 4% of the population and Muslims (primarily Sunni) comprise about 4% of the population. Hindus, and other minority religions, such as practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions, make up the other 2%. There are a few members of the Jewish faith in Rangoon. The total population of Myanmar is estimated to be about 54,500,000, although no official census has been taken since 1983. 

Christianity is the largest religion in some ethnic minority communities, such as the ethnic Kachin, Chin and Naga population. Christianity is also expanding among the Karen and Karenni minorities. However, Christians in many areas face particularly severe and ongoing religious abuse, including restrictions on building places of worship, destruction of religious buildings, coerced conversions to Buddhism, and requirements of permits for any gathering of more than five people outside of Sunday service. Islam is practiced widely among the ethnic Burmese and the Rohingya community of the state of Rakhine, and, as reported below, Muslims also face serious religious persecution. One of the serious threats to religious minorities is the Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training Schools, which target ethnic minorities for enrollment with the offers of free food, free schooling, and guaranteed government positions on graduation. These schools are accused of attempting to convert the students to Buddhism. On a more positive side, there is a Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC) that promotes understanding and cooperation among the various Christian denominations and presents a unified engagement with the government and other faiths.  

Religious organizations are not required to register with the government. However, certain activities of religious organizations, such as religious education and charitable work, must be approved by government. The government discourages proselytizing by clergy of non-Buddhist faiths, and may censor such activities. But the government today is less likely to expel foreign based missionary groups who proselytize. Most members of religious groups that are recognized by the government generally are allowed to worship as they choose.  

The government requires citizens and permanent residents of Myanmar to carry government-issued National Registration Cards (NRCs), or, as they are sometimes called, Citizenship Scrutiny Cards.  The religious affiliation may be stated on the cards, but this is not uniform in practice.  A citizen applying for a passport must indicate his/her religion, but the passport itself does not show this data. 

The Muslim Rohingya population in the state of Rakhine is experiencing significant unrest and violence. The government has denied citizenship status to the Rohingya people, who are referred to as “Bengalis”. The government maintains that the Rohingya did not reside in the country before the start of British colonial rule in 1824, as required by the 1982 Citizenship Law. Most Rohingya assert otherwise. The government brands them as illegal immigrants. Citizenship is necessary if the Rohingya want access to secondary education in state-run schools, employment in civil service jobs, access to healthcare, and other benefits accorded to citizens of the country. Significant violence, including death, against the Rohingya by Buddhist monks has been reported. Over 1,000 Rohingya have been killed in the past year, tens of thousands displaced, and villages and religious structures destroyed. The sectarian violence in the state of Rakhine has expanded into anti-Muslim violence in other areas of Myanmar. Furthermore, Rohingya Muslims are restricted to two children per family in certain areas in Rakhine. There is also a long-standing requirement that Rohingya Muslims must obtain government approval before marriage. 

Because of the many instances of religious intolerance, in 2013, the U.S. State Department has designated Myanmar as a “country of particular concern” under the International Freedom of Religion Act.  Myanmar has been under this designation continually since 1999.  There are signs of government reforms in Myanmar, which raises hope that the religious freedom will increase.  The speed of the reforms was unexpected, but the concern is that willingness of the government to continue on this path is fragile and reversible.  Some of the improvements in governance include the release of political and religious prisoners, and revisions to the laws on freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. 

The first general election in 20 years was held in 2010. The nominally civilian government was installed in March of 2011, headed by President Thein Sein. President Thein Sein stepped down as a general of the Armed Forces to assume the role of President.  The election was boycotted by the National League for Democracy (NLD) which is headed by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. The NLD had won a landslide victory in the earlier multi-party election held in 1990, but was not allowed to govern. The NLD participated in the April, 2012 by-elections and won 43 out of the 45 seats up for election. 

With the apparent transition to civilian rule and governance in 2011 under the 2009 Constitution, the United States and the European Union have responded by lifting or suspending many of their economic sanctions.  

Republic of the Union of Myanmar: Law and Religion Framework Overview (January 2014). To view the full report, which includes information about constitutional provisions and government structure, please click the link below: