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

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Chhattisgarh, India, November 17 (CDN) — Police on Nov. 8 detained Christians based on false allegations of “allurement to conversion” in Yadunandan Nagar, near Bilaspur. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that at 8:45 p.m., nearly 150 locals stormed the house where a prayer service led by Kesboram Bhagel and his sister-in-law, Sangeetha Daniel, was taking place for a sick boy. Led by Hindu extremists from the Dharam Sena and Bajrang Dal shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram],” area Hindus dragged Bhagel out of the house as they slapped and kicked him. Police came to the site but remained mute spectators as the extremists continued beating Bhagel. Officers took Bhagel and other Christians to the Civil Lines Police Station at 10:10 p.m., followed by nearly 70 Hindu extremists, and released them at 3:30 a.m. without being charged. Police officials told Compass that they could not arrest any of the Hindu aggressors because Bhagel stated that he could not identify any of them. 

Karnataka – Police along with Hindu nationalist extremists on Nov. 6 disrupted a house church service in Bhadravathi, Shimoga district, falsely accused a physically challenged pastor of forcible conversion and verbally abused him. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that around 12:30 p.m. nearly 20 intolerant Hindus barged into the Faith in Christ house church as three families assembled for their weekly service. Pastor Kannan Ramesh, owner of a small tailoring shop out of the same house, told Compass that the extremists angrily questioned two Christians identified only as Thrimurthi and Kumar about “conversion activities” at the church. They also tried to coerce Kumar into falsely testifying that Pastor Ramesh was forcibly converting local villagers, which Kumar refused to do in spite of threats. The extremists took Pastor Ramesh by auto-rickshaw to Old Town Rural Police Station in Bhadravathi, along with Kumar and Thrimurthi. Police questioned Pastor Ramesh about his tailoring business and warned him against using the place as a church, and then released the Christians without charges at about 11 p.m.

Karnataka – Nearly 20 Hindu nationalist extremists from the Bajrang Dal on Nov. 3 attacked a Christian identified only as Manjunath on the pretext of “forcible conversions” near an apartment complex in Attavar, Mangalore. The Daijiworld Media Network reported that the extremists struck Manjunath, a construction worker, with their hands at the BG Court Apartments as he stood outside his rental unit. They entered Manjunath’s apartment and found Christian literature. Neighbors said they had no knowledge of any conversion activity at his apartment; local sources confirmed this to Compass, and police arrived at the same conclusion after an investigation. Occasionally Manjunath’s friends assembled for prayer at his house, sources said, and Hindu extremists noticed and mobilized a mob, bringing along local television crew that filmed the attack.

Chhattisgarh – Nearly 100 Hindu nationalist extremists on Nov. 1 stormed a Sunday service, attacking a pastor, his family and the congregation and spewing baseless accusations of forceful conversion in Fukagirola, 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Kondagaon, Bastar district. The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) reported that at 11 a.m. the mob barged into Milan Prarthana Mandir church, accused Pastor Angel Natham of forcible conversion and started beating him. They snatched his 1-year-old son, Akush Raj, from his wife and threw him to the ground, then beat her and 10 others. EFI reported that Kondagaon police arrived at 1 p.m. and took the pastor to the police station, and only afterward was he sent to a hospital where he underwent treatment. His son’s left ear was reportedly injured, and the infant was having difficulty hearing. A police official told Compass a complaint of forcible conversion against the pastor was filed by a person identified only as Shuklal, and that an investigation into the assault was in progress.

Chhattisgarh – Suspected Hindu extremists attacked a Sunday worship service on Oct. 25 at Masturi, 17 kilometers (10 miles) from Bilaspur district, injuring the backbone, arms and chest of Pastor Pavitra Kumar Beshra. The 27-year-old pastor of Beersheba Church of God, who works with Indian Evangelical Team (IET), was attacked by masked men dressed in cricket uniforms at 1:30 p.m. They arrived on motorcycles and called Pastor Beshra out of the church, then started to beat him with a cricket bat and stumps, Anish Charan told Compass. The pastor managed to escape and shut himself into the church building. The attackers also injured another church member, Triveni Basanti, 34, according to IET, and damaged a church member’s motorcycle. The unidentified men left the place shouting “Jai Shri Ram [Hail Lord Ram].” Pastor Beshra has filed a First Information Report with local police.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists attacked a school for street children in Hubli district on Oct. 22. Some 25 members of the Sri Ram Sene (Army of Lord Ram) forcefully entered the school building of the Adarsha Children’s Education Centre, which belongs to the minority Christian community, and damaged school property, Bibles and other books, reported the Global Council of Indian Christians. After vandalizing the school, the extremists went to a police station and pressed charges against school authorities for allegedly “forcefully converting” students to Christianity. This educational center, managed by Daniel Lingaraju, was started in July and is dedicated to training and teaching poor street children.

Report from Compass Direct News