As Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign kicks into full gear, we’re going to hear a lot of pundits and politicians say her Myanmar policy as Secretary of State was a failure, and that the administration granted Myanmar’s leaders too many prizes up front for relaxing their authoritarian rule. They’ll be right, at least partially. On the last day of August, Myanmar’s President Thein Sein signed into law the last of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills; among other constraints, the laws restrict religious conversion and interfaith marriage, and allow regional officials to force some women to space three years between each birth. Human rights advocates of all stripes have denounced the bills since their inception, which now stand as testimony to a failure of U.S. diplomacy at the highest levels.
Meanwhile, the country’s minorities suffer. But while the pundits focus on skewering Clinton these next 14 months, they’re unlikely to discuss the real drivers of violence and persecution in Myanmar: societal actors that wield tremendous political and public influence and instigate most of the bloodshed on the ground. We need to understand this before we can even hope to address, holistically, the religious and ethnic oppression taking place in that nation – and in many others like it around the world.
Myanmar’s government is quasi-civilian, an institution put in place by the country’s ruling military junta in 2011 as an initial step toward democracy. In November, the nation will hold its first free elections in 25 years. As Myanmar lurches toward a more representative, democratic future, a casual observer might see the “Race and Religion” laws as an attempt by the military to retain some authoritarian power over the populace, which it wielded ruthlessly in its heyday. But here’s the thing: the bills were drafted and essentially pushed into being by Ma Ba Tha, or the “Committee for the Protection of Race and Religion,” a radical Buddhist group. Ma Ba Tha emerged somewhat recently from the 969 movement, a loosely-organized group of monks that instigated widespread violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya in 2012 and 2013.
Equally surprising, perhaps, is the fact that radical Buddhists are not only found in Myanmar: in Thailand, the Knowing Buddha Foundation is overtly non-violent but advocates for a blasphemy law to punish anyone who insults Buddhism; in Sri Lanka, Buddhist fundamentalists have carried out hundreds of attacks against Christians and Muslims.
Of course, Buddhist fundamentalists are not the only religious group to assault other faiths. In a recent article forForeign Policy, Knox Thames provides a rundown of extremists around the world and their records of oppression, from the well-known case of ISIS in the Middle East to religious militias in the middle of Africa. I’ll add another story: the murder of four atheist bloggers this year in Bangladesh by suspected Islamist militants. Freedom of religion or belief must include the freedom to choose none.
In addition to describing the problem of religious persecution, Thames addresses the barriers (which are abundant) to correcting it. From a U.S. perspective, a glaring blind spot is that our approach continues to be state-centric – an appropriate strategy when the perpetrator is the Big Authoritarian State (whether secular or theocratic), but less so when societal actors are at fault. The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 forms the cornerstone of U.S. international religious freedom (IRF) policy; among other mandates, the Act created an Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom and the independent Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Both offices are tasked with submitting annual reports to Congress which identify “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) that violate religious freedom.
While CPC designation may be applied – along with sanctions - to governments that tolerate the actions of extremist groups, it doesn’t do much good in combatting non-state actors, especially when these groups operate in weak, failed, or transitioning states (See Myanmar, a “Tier 1” CPC). Thames notes that in 2014, USCIRFrecommended that Congress expand CPC classification to included failed states and non-state actors, along with increasing funding for fieldwork grants and including messaging on IRF’s importance in strategic communications programs. Thames goes on to cite several multinational, cooperative efforts underway to oppose religious extremism.
These new initiatives are welcome and necessary, but unfortunately, far from sufficient. Government policies and advocacy – especially government-to-government advocacy - can only do so much to stem religious persecution by societal forces, even if those policies are well-resourced and funded (and they rarely have been). Advocacy, education, and reconciliation must be provided and elicited at all levels of society – and this requires contributions from all types of organizations and individuals, along with years of patience and persistence. A number of groups are practicing this: the Institute for Global Engagement (or IGE, where I volunteer as a fellow) is a leader in this type of relational diplomacy, espousing both a top-down (government-oriented) and bottom-up (grassroots-oriented) approach that emphasizes a great deal of listening and long-term relationship building. The East West Institute, though not specifically focused on IRF, is another organization that pursues diplomacy through multiple channels and trust. And in the corporate world, the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation is making the data-driven case that religious freedom is good for business, and encouraging business leaders to help promote interfaith understanding and peace.
But the work of freedom of religion or belief isn’t even just work for think tanks and foundations. Civil and cross-cultural dialogue, a gold standard many of these think tanks aspire to, is not the work of intellectuals or politicians. Faith communities across borders, a collective of spiritual and moral capital, need to realize this work; a transfusion of civility and of dignity – person to person, group to group – that will play an essential role in alleviating the suffering of millions. The first step is recognizing that need – and where the powers of states and think tanks begin and end – in Myanmar and beyond.
-Michael Searway is a Congressional and Transatlantic Relations Fellow with the Institute for Global Engagement.