During historic White House visit, US condemns Myanmar's human rights

(Photo: Reuters / Larry Downing)U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with Myanmar's President Thein Sein in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington May 20, 2013. Obama will walk a fine line between fostering a U.S. ally in China's backyard and trying to defend human rights on Monday when Thein Sein becomes the first head of his country to visit the White House in 47 years. (

While Myanmar's president Thein Sein made a historic visit to the United States the country' State Department released its annual international religious freedom report, decrying Myanmar's suppression of religious freedom.

"In Burma," the report states, "the government maintained restrictions on certain religious activities, limited freedom of religion, and actively promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, particularly among certain ethnic minority populations."

The report goes on to detail instances of persecution, including the "gang-rape" and "prolonged torture" of a Christian woman in a church by Burmese soldiers. According to the report, the soldiers never faced any form of discipline.

President Barack Obama said during talks Monday that he urged Thein Sein to address the violence against Myanmar's Rohingya Muslim minority.

Myanmar has faced increased international pressure to ensure religious freedom as more stories of Buddhist-Muslim sectarian violence have surfaced in recent months.

Speaking at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C., Thein Sein said his government is committed to protecting religious freedom, stating they would like to "ensure not only that inter-communal violence is brought to a halt, but that all perpetrators are brought to justice."

According to the video journalism organization Democratic Voice of Burma, 43 people died in the latest attack, and thousands of Muslims were left homeless.

Nearly 200 people were killed in 2012 as the result of Buddhist-Muslim clashes.

Since 1999, the United States has designated Myanmar a "country of particular concern" for its history of religious oppression, and the state of religious freedom has also been condemned by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN special adviser on the prevention of genocide.

Representatives from the Chin Human Rights Organization recently visited officials in the European Union, the United States and Canada, urging them to push the Myanmar government to include religious freedom in its series of political reforms.

The Chin, a largely Christian ethnic minority in Myanmar, have also faced persecution – mostly from the Burmese Army.

The group is advocating for freedom of religion for all religious minorities, including Muslims.

"Discrimination [in Myanmar] on grounds of religion and ethnicity is both deep-rooted and institutionalized," said Chin Human Rights Organization member, Salai Za Uk Ling, while testifying before the European Parliament in March.

"Current reforms in Burma should focus on dismantling the institutional structures and policies that enable continued discrimination and forced assimilation against ethnic and religious minorities."

Thein Sein's visit to the U.S. is being hailed by some observers as a positive first step toward reform.

Others are less optimistic.

Jennifer Quigley, executive director of US Campaign for Burma, said on the PBS NewsHour that while Myanmar should be lauded for trying to improve international relationships, many issues are being whitewashed as a result.

"Unfortunately for us," she said, "[Improved relationship] comes at the expense of there not being much progress on issues that the international community has let sort of fall by the wayside, the human rights agenda, the pursuit of holding the military accountable for the atrocities that it continues to create."

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