Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election


Military hostilities against insurgents may result in Christian casualties and persecution.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, October 22 (CDN) — With Burma’s first election in over 20 years just two weeks away, Christians in ethnic minority states fear that afterward the military regime will try to “cleanse” the areas of Christianity, sources said.

The Burmese junta is showing restraint to woo voters in favor of its proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), but it is expected to launch a military offensive on insurgents in ethnic minority states after the Nov. 7 election, Burma watchers warned.

When Burma Army personnel attack, they do not discriminate between insurgents and unarmed residents, said a representative of the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers relief aid group in Chiang Mai, close to the Thai-Burma border. There is a large Christian population in Burma’s Kachin, Karen and Karenni states along the border that falls under the military’s target zone. Most of the slightly more than 2 million Christians in Burma (also called Myanmar) reside along the country’s border with Thailand, China and India.

The military seems to be preparing its air force for an offensive, said Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based magazine Irrawaddy, which covers Burma. The Burmese Air Force (BAF) bought 50 Mi-24 helicopters and 12 Mi-2 armored transport helicopters from Russia in September, added Zaw, a Buddhist.

Irrawaddy reported that the BAF had procured combat-equipped helicopters for the first time in its history. Air strikes will be conducted “most likely in Burma’s ethnic areas, where dozens of armed groups still exert control,” the magazine reported, quoting BAF sources.

“Armed conflicts between ethnic armies and the military can flare up any time,” said Zaw. “However, to boost the morale of its personnel, the military is expected to attack smaller ethnic groups first, and then the more powerful ones.”

Seven states of Burma have armed and unarmed groups demanding independence or autonomy from the regime: Shan, Karenni (also known as Kayah), Karen, Mon, Chin, Kachin, and Arakan (also Rakhine).

The junta has designated many areas in this region as “Black Zones” – entirely controlled by armed ethnic groups – and “Brown Zones,” where the military has partial control, said the source from FBR, which provides relief to internally displaced people in states across the Thai-Burma border.

“There are many unarmed Christian residents in these zones where Burmese military personnel attack and kill anyone on sight,” the source said.

A Karen state native in Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph, who fled Burma as a child, referred to the junta’s clandestine campaign to wipe out Christians from the country. At least four years ago a secret memo circulated in Karen state, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” that carried “point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state,” reported the British daily Telegraph on Jan. 21, 2007.

“The text, which opens with the line, ‘There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced,’ calls for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned,” the Telegraph reported. “It advises: ‘The Christian religion is very gentle – identify and utilize its weakness.’”

Persecution of Christians in Burma “is part of a wider campaign by the regime, also targeted at ethnic minority tribes, to create a uniform society in which the race and language is Burmese and the only accepted religion is Buddhism,” the daily noted.

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the FBR. Three months ago, Burma Army’s Light Infantry Battalions 370 and 361 attacked a Christian village in Karen state, according to the FBR. In Tha Dah Der village on July 23, army personnel burned all houses, one of the state’s biggest churches – which was also a school – and all livestock and cattle, reported the FBR.

More than 900 people fled to save their lives.

 

Vague Religious Freedom

The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.

The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament after the election, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.

Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.

Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”

Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”

Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.

The Burmese junta is expected to remain at the helm of affairs after the election. The 2008 constitution reserves one-fourth of all seats in national as well as regional assemblies for military personnel.

A majority of people in Burma are not happy with the military’s USDP party, and military generals are expected to twist the results in its favor, said Htet Aung, chief election reporter at Irrawaddy.

Khonumtung News Group, an independent Burmese agency, reported on Oct. 2 that most educated young Burmese from Chin state were “disgusted” with the planned election, “which they believe to be a sham and not likely to be free and fair.”

They “are crossing the border to Mizoram in the northeast state of India from Chin state and Sagaing division to avoid participating,” Khonumtung reported. “On a regular basis at least five to 10 youths are crossing the border daily to avoid voting. If they stay in Burma, they will be coerced to cast votes.”

There is “utter confusion” among people, and they do not know if they should vote or not, said Aung of Irrawaddy. While the second largest party, the National Unity Party, is pro-military, there are few pro-democracy and ethnic minority parties.

“Many of the pro-democracy and ethnic minority candidates have little or no experience in politics,” Aung said. “All those who had some experience have been in jail as political prisoners for years.”

In some ethnic minority states, the USDP might face an embarrassing defeat. And this can deepen the military’s hostility towards minorities, including Christians, after the election, added Aung.

For now, an uneasy calm prevails in the Thai-Burma border region where most ethnic Christians live.

Report from Compass Direct News

Conviction of Legislator in India Falls Short of Expectations


In murder of Christian, Hindu nationalist sentenced to seven years for causing ‘grievous hurt.’

NEW DELHI, July 2 (CDN) — Christians in Orissa state had mixed feelings about the sentencing on Tuesday (June 29) of state legislator Manoj Pradhan to seven years in prison for causing grievous hurt and rioting – but not for murder.

“Pradhan is not convicted of murder, but offenses of voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons and rioting were upheld,” attorney Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass. “Pradhan will be debarred from attending the Orissa Legislative Assembly unless the order of conviction is stayed by the Orissa High Court, or if special permission is granted by the court allowing him to attend.”

Kanaka Rekha Nayak, widow of murdered Christian Parikhita Nayak, acknowledged that the verdict on Pradhan and fellow Hindu nationalist Prafulla Mallick in the August-September 2008 violence against Christians did not meet her expectations. She said she was happy that Pradhan was finally behind bars, but that she “expected the court to at least pronounce life imprisonment on Pradhan and Mallick for the gruesome act that they committed.”

Das said he will try to increase the sentence.

“Pradhan spearheaded the riots and has several criminal charges against him – he cannot be let off with a simple punishment,” Das said. “We will be filing a criminal revision in the Orissa High Court for enhancing the period to life imprisonment.”

The day after Pradhan was sentenced, two Hindu nationalists were reportedly convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” in the burning death of a paralyzed Christian during the 2008 attacks on Christians in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district and sentenced to only six years of prison.

UCAN agency reported that Sushanta Sahu and Tukuna Sahu were convicted and sentenced on Wednesday (June 30) in the death of Rasananda Pradhan, a paralytic burned alive when Hindu extremists set his house on fire on Aug. 24, 2008. Church leaders criticized the lenient sentences.

Manoj Pradhan has been charged in 14 cases related to the August-September 2008 anti-Christian attacks. In seven of the cases he has been acquitted, he was convicted of “grievous hurt” in this one, and six more are pending against him.

Of the 14 cases in which he faces charges, seven involve murder; of those murder cases, he has been acquitted in three.

After a series of trials in which murder suspects in the 2008 Kandhamal district violence have gone free as Hindu extremist threats kept witnesses from testifying, the testimony of Nayak’s daughter, 6-year-old Lipsa Nayak, helped seal Pradhan’s conviction.

His widow, Rekha Nayak, told Compass that due to the severe threats on her life that she has received, she and her two daughters were forced to flee the area and go into hiding.

There were around 1,500 Hindu supporters present for this week’s verdict, a source in the courtroom told Compass on condition of anonymity.

“We had to leave the place before the judgment was pronounced and could not enter that area for three or four days after the verdict,” said the source, adding that prosecuting lawyers and human rights activists received the main threats.

Along with the seven years of prison, the Phulbani Court sentenced the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of the Legislative Assembly of Orissa from G. Udayagiri, Kandhamal to a fine a little more than US$100, as it did for Mallick. The verdict came from Fast Track Sessions Court I Judge Sobhan Kumar Das in the Aug. 27, 2008 murder of 31-year-old Parikhita Nayak, a Dalit Christian from Tiangia, Budedipada, in Raikia block of Kandhamal district.

Pradhan was also accused of setting fire to houses of people belonging to the minority Christian community.

“I have the highest regard for the judiciary,” Pradhan told Press Trust of India after this week’s verdict. “We will appeal against the verdict in the higher court.”

Cases have been filed against Pradhan for rioting, rioting with deadly weapons, unlawful assembly, causing disappearance of evidence of offense, murder, wrongfully restraining someone, wrongful confinement, mischief by fire or explosive substance with intent to destroy houses, voluntarily causing grievous hurt and voluntarily causing grievous hurt by dangerous weapons or means.

Dibakar Parichha of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the judgment was “a good boost to the Christian community.”

“When the trials were on, the Nayak family faced terrible times,” Parichha added. “Pradhan and his associates threatened Kanaka Rekha, the widow of the deceased, right inside the courtroom of dire consequences if they testified about them.”

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese issued a statement saying that the verdict had boosted confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished.

“People have been waiting for good judgment, and we have confidence in the judiciary that criminals will be punished,” Cheenath said, adding that the sentence will show criminals that the law will not spare any one. “One day or other, they will be punished.”

The Rev. Richard Howell, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, told Compass that the verdict offered some hope.

“The fact that something has happened gives us some hope that more convictions would take place in the trials to come,” he said.

Calling the conviction “justice that was long overdue,” Howell said that not much can be expected from Fast Track Courts as no security is provided to witnesses.

 

Girl’s Testimony

During the 2008 anti-Christian attacks that followed the death of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, Lipsa Nayak’s parents and her sister had taken refuge in the forest to escape the fury of the Hindu extremists, but the rampaging mob tracked them down.

Lipsa, then 4 years old, along with her mother and then 2-year-old sister, Amisha Nayak, watched in horror as the crowd allegedly beat her father for two hours and then killed him by cutting him into pieces and burning him.

Rekha Nayak filed a complaint and a case was registered against Pradhan, Mallick and others for murder, destroying evidence, rioting and unlawful assembly. Pradhan was arrested on Oct. 16, 2008, from Berhampur, and in December 2009 he obtained bail from the Orissa High Court.

Despite his role in the attacks, Pradhan was the only BJP candidate elected from the G. Udayagiri constituency in the 2009 Assembly elections from Kandhamal district. He had campaigned inside jail.

On March 14, Rekha Nayak and her daughter Lipsa testified in court in spite of the threats. Rekha Nayak reportedly testified that when the Hindu mob demanded that her husband renounce Christianity or face death, he kept quiet, which led to his death.

Prosecution and defense lawyers questioned Lipsa for more than 90 minutes, and she reportedly answered all questions without wavering. Asked by the judge if she could identify the killer of her father, she pointed to Pradhan.

So far he has been exonerated of murder charges against him for “lack of witnesses.” Christian leaders say that Pradhan has been intimidating witnesses because of his position as a member of the Legislative Assembly.

The government of Orissa has set up two Fast Track courts to try cases related to the violence that spread to more than a dozen districts of Orissa. The attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions.

Trials are being held for 38 cases in which 154 people have been convicted and more than twice that many have been acquitted, as high as 621 by one count. Victims filed 3,232 complaints in the various police stations of Kandhamal district. Of these, police registered cases in only 832 instances.

“Nearly 12,000 people are accused in the riot case – 11,803 are out on bail,” said attorney Das.

Report from Compass Direct News