Amid growing political freedom in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, there has been much easing of the restrictions on religious freedom under military rule, according to a prominent church leader.
“There is now much more freedom at every level,” said the Rev. Saw Shwe Lin, general secretary of the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), which includes 14 member churches, 13 ecumenical Christian organizations and 50 local church councils.
Lin spoke to ENInews first while he was in Bangalore in April for the quadrennial assembly of the National Council of Churches in India and later through email communication.
The interview came after the April 1 by-election that was swept by the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD won 43 of 45 seats in the national legislature where the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), backed by the military, holds most of the 664 seats.
After decades of military rule, the ruling regime had introduced several reforms by opening the country’s economy, loosening controls on media, and freeing political prisoners including Suu Kyi.
Elaborating on the greater religious freedom in the Buddhist-majority county, Lin pointed out that local government officials do not object to holding of prayers and worship in houses “unlike in the past,” and the number of theological institutions is increasing.
“Our people are holding regular prayers in mission compounds without any problem,” said Lin, an ordained pastor of the Self Supporting Karen Baptist Mission Society of Myanmar where Christians account for about seven percent of the 57 million people.
Similarly, he noted that while Christian publications earlier had to submit texts and wait for months to get approval from government censors, Christians are now bringing out their magazines and periodicals without any state monitoring.
“The government is against mixing religion with politics. When we keep both apart, there is no problem,” Lin said. However, Lin added that Christians have not yet received approval to print the Bible locally since the Bible contains several banned words such as “our Lord” and “savior.”
At the same time, Lin noted that the government has eased much of the restriction on civil rights and the issuing of passports. “Earlier foreign travel was very difficult and the passport had to be surrendered on return. But those restrictions have gone,” he added. He also noted that restrictions on internet access and media outlets have been lifted.