WASHINGTON (BP)–The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has called on the United States and the United Nations to mount an international effort to hold the Burmese military regime accountable for its violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations.
The bipartisan commission’s Oct. 4 written request urged the U.S. government to take the lead by working for condemnation by the U.N. Security Council and Burma’s neighbors of the junta’s deadly suppression of dissent. Burma also is known as Myanmar.
The call by USCIRF came after the regime put down protests in late September by killing some protesters and jailing others. The junta reported 10 deaths among dissenters, but opposing groups estimated a toll of as many as 200, plus about 6,000 arrests, according to the Associated Press. The confrontation began in mid-August when citizens began protesting against a rise in fuel prices, but it intensified when thousands of Buddhist monks joined the demonstrations against the junta.
The military junta released 229 people arrested during the protests, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, news services reported Oct. 3. Authorities interrogated the prisoners day and night, one of the freed monks said, but they were not subjected to torture, although many reportedly were beaten during the arrests.
Richard Land, USCIRF’s vice chairman and president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, urged Americans and others to stand with the Burmese people.
“As a member of USCIRF and as an American and a Baptist who believes in soul freedom, I believe it is incumbent on all freedom-loving people to speak out in support of Burmese citizens who are struggling so courageously and speaking out so heroically for the basic freedoms that we so often take for granted,” Land said.
The State Department has included Burma on its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPC) ever since it began issuing an annual report on international religious freedom in 1999. In May, USCIRF urged the State Department to retain Burma as a CPC, a category reserved for governments that have “engaged in or tolerated systemic and egregious violations of religious freedom.” The State Department has yet to release its CPC list this year.
The regime promotes Buddhism but also works to control it, jailing monks who have opposed the junta’s policies, according to USCIRF. The government also suppresses ethnic Christians and Muslims, USCIRF has reported.
The Bush administration has decried the Burmese junta’s violent actions and issued new sanctions against the regime, but USCIRF urged it to do more. Among actions the commission called for Oct. 4 were:
— a U.S.-led effort in the U.N. Security Council to condemn Burma’s actions, although it acknowledged China, Russia and South Africa have been unwilling to do so in the past.
— a U.S.-prompted coalition of Asian democracies -– such as India, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea –- to demonstrate to Burma what it must do to have “economic and political sanctions” lifted.
— a U.N.-established mission to monitor human rights in Burma.
— an independent investigation, called for by the United States, to discover what has happened to the thousands of demonstrators whose whereabouts are unknown.
USCIRF recommended it be allowed to conduct such an investigation, since members and staff of the commission already have a trip planned in two weeks to Southeast Asia.
“The decision to fire upon peaceful demonstrators and to kill and jail Buddhist monks shows the Burmese military’s complete contempt for the most basic human rights,” USCIRF Chairman Michael Cromartie said in the written release.
“Building a coalition of democracies that includes our closest allies in Asia will be a powerful voice for change over stability,” said Cromartie, vice president of the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Moreover, by building such a coalition to address government acts of violence in Burma, we will help move our allies toward strategies that strengthen the prospect for continued democratization, the protection of religious freedom and the adoption of the rule of law across the entire region.”
USCIRF was established in 1998 to advise the White House and Congress on global religious freedom issues. The president selects three members of the panel, while congressional leaders name the other six. The State Department’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom serves as a non-voting member of the panel.
Two weeks before the recent anti-government protests –- Burma’s largest protest since the army brutally crushed a 1988 student-led democracy uprising — Christians in at least 13 countries in four continents prayed and fasted for the country and its embattled believers.
The intercession for Myanmar, led by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Burma Campaign UK, began Sept. 9, according to Mission Network News.
“The government is uncomfortable with the growth of the church because Christians are reaching out and being effective,” said Todd Nettleton of Voice of the Martyrs. “We can pray that that will continue. And we can pray for their protection.”
Based on reporting by Tom Strode, Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, and Mark Kelly, a freelance writer based in Gallatin, Tenn.