Spike in Anti-Christian Violence Feared before Burma Elections

Attacks on Christians seen as politically expedient in majority-Buddhist nation.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, January 21 (CDN) — As Burma’s military junta gears up for its first parliamentary election in two decades this year, observers fear attacks on the Christian minority could intensify.

Mungpi Suangtak, assistant editor of a New Delhi-based news agency run by exiled Burmese journalists, the Mizzima News, said the Burmese junta has “one of the world’s worst human rights records” and will “definitely” attack religious and ethnic minorities more forcefully in the run-up to the election.

The military regime, officially known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), pledged to hold the election this year, and analysts believe polls will be held after July in the country, also known as Myanmar.

Suangtak told Compass that the Buddhist nationalist junta would target Christians particularly in Karen state, bordering Thailand, and in Chin State, bordering India and Bangladesh.

Many Christians are part of the Karen National Union and the Chin National Front, armed resistance groups that have been demanding freedom or autonomy for their respective states for decades, and therefore the junta sees the Christian minority as a threat, said Suangtak.

There are over 100,000 Christian Chin refugees in India who have fled the junta’s attacks in the past two decades, according to Human Rights Watch.

Christians in Karen state are not safe. A Karen Christian worker living in the Mae La refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border told Compass that ethnic Christians were facing human rights abuses by the junta “on a daily basis.” Most recently, Burma army soldiers attacked a church, murdered a local farmer and injured others in Nawng Mi village on Dec. 19, 2009, reported Burma Campaign UK.

Parts of Karen state fall under the “Black Zone” – identified by the Burma army as an area under the control of armed resistance groups where its soldiers are free to open fire on anyone on sight – and the junta has been launching indiscriminate attacks to take control of village after village, said the Karen Christian.

“Those who are not able to flee across the border during such attacks are either killed or forcibly relocated in and confined to temporary camps set up by the junta,” the Christian said. “Since the army litters surrounding areas with landmines, many local people die or get injured while trying to run away from or coming to the camps to look for their relatives.”

Over 150,000 refugees from Karen and neighboring Karenni states of Burma are living along the Thai side of the border, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. More than half of them are Christian.

A representative of the Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains and sends teams of local people to help victims of the junta’s attacks inside Burma, said youths have been forced to become Buddhists in Chin state, where over 80 percent of the people are Christian.

Printing of Bibles is restricted, and churches are destroyed on a regular basis in the state, the source told Compass on condition of anonymity.

Access for foreign visitors to Chin state is, with some exceptions, prohibited, and the state is widely acknowledged to be the poorest part of the country, said Rogers.

“According to one Chin, the reason Chin state is denied resources, and foreigners are denied access, is specifically because the overwhelming majority of Chins are Christian,” stated a 2009 report by London-based advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW). “The SPDC has, it is believed, taken a deliberate decision to discriminate against Chin Christians.”

The report cited a Chin Christian man who had served in the Burma army who faced discrimination.

“I had a colleague who was a Chin who became a Buddhist and he was promoted,” the Christian says in the report. “I was told to change my religion if I wanted to get promotion. I refused to convert.”

The report also quoted a Chin Christian as saying that students from a Christian youth fellowship at a university in Kalaymyo, in Chin state’s Sagaing Division, collected funds among their own community to construct a small church.

“However, in 2008 and again in 2009, ‘extremist Buddhists’ destroyed the church building, and when the students reported the incident to the local authorities, the youth fellowship leaders were arrested, detained and then released with a warning,” he said.

Religious Pretext

Suangtak said successive governments in Burma have promoted Buddhism since General Ne Win took power in 1962, leaving Christians insecure.

“There is a general feeling in Burma that the state represents Buddhism, and most Christians, particularly from conservative sections, cannot trust the regime,” said Suangtak.

Benedict Rogers of CSW said the junta doesn’t differentiate between individual Christians involved in armed struggle and ordinary Christians who have not taken up arms.

“And when it attacks villages in conflict zones, churches and pastors are often among the first to be attacked,” Rogers said.

A Christian worker from Burma’s Mandalay city, however, told Compass that thus far he has heard no reports of any major anti-Christian incidents there. He said he was hoping the junta would try to woo people with peace rather than violence.

“But nothing can be said about the unpredictable junta,” he said, adding that it was difficult to receive or send information in Burma. “Even in cities, the information infrastructure is limited and expensive, phones are tapped and e-mails are monitored. And the press is owned by the state.”

Rogers, deputy chairman of the human rights commission for the U.K.’s Conservative Party, said the Buddhist nationalist regime “distorts and perverts Buddhism for political purposes and is intolerant of non-Burman and non-Buddhist ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims.”

Of the 56 million people in Burma, around 89 percent are Buddhist, with only 4 percent Christian.

Given that the junta merely uses religion for political power, it doesn’t target Christians alone, Suangtak said.

“The junta has no respect for any religion, be it Christians or Buddhists, and anyone who opposes its rule is dealt with harshly.”

Burma was ruled by military regimes from 1962 to 1990; at that point the National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, won the parliamentary election. But the regime seized power again by imprisoning members of parliament after the election.

Rogers, who has co-authored a soon-to-be-published biography of SPDC chairman Senior General Than Shwe, said that while the armed groups are not perfect, they are essentially fighting to defend their people against a “brutal regime” and are “not in any way terrorists.”

“The armed groups have sometimes launched pre-emptive attacks on the military, but they have never attacked non-military targets and have never engaged in indiscriminate acts of violence,” he said. “Even the pre-emptive acts are conducted for defensive, rather than offensive, purposes.”

Rogers added that resistance groups were fighting to defend their people.

“Individual Christians who have joined the armed ethnic groups do so out of a perfectly biblical concept of just war, the right to defend your people from gross injustice.”

Added an FBR source, “In Burma, no one protects except the pro-democracy resistance groups, and all relief inside the country is only possible because of them.”

International Disrepute

The 2009 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Burma’s military junta had “one of the world’s worst human rights records.”

“Burma’s Christian populations face forced promotion of Buddhism and other hardships in ethnic minority areas where low-intensity conflict has been waged for decades,” the report states. “In addition, a new law passed in early 2009 essentially bans independent ‘house church’ religious venues, many of which operate because permission to build church buildings is regularly denied.”

The report also pointed out that in January 2009, authorities in Rangoon ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding services and forced them to sign pledges to that effect. Burma, which the ruling junta describes as “The Golden Land” on its official website, has been designated as a Country of Particular Concern by the U.S. Department of State since 1999.

Even after the 2010 election, little is expected to change.

The FBR source said the election was not likely to be free and fair, pointing out that the new constitution the junta adopted after an apparently rigged referendum in 2008 virtually enshrined military power.

“However, having an election is better than not having one at all,” the source said.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Human Rights Watch shows systematic, officially sanctioned religious freedom violations.

DUBLIN, February 20 (Compass Direct News) – A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in January details serious and ongoing abuses against the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest who claim to be 90 percent Christian.

HRW’s research echoes a 2004 report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) that described targeted abuse of Christians in Chin state, with the Burmese army subjecting pastors and church members to forced labor, arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and sometimes death.

While religious oppression is extreme in Chin state, restrictions also apply elsewhere in Burma, also known as Myanmar. Most recently, officials in January forced the closure of more than 100 churches in Rangoon and ordered owners of apartment buildings and conference facilities not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Based on interviews with Chin refugees in India and Malaysia between 2003 and 2008, HRW’s report describes how an increasing number of army battalions stationed in Chin state since 1988 have inflicted forced labor and arbitrary fines on the Chin people, as well as bullied them away from Christianity toward Buddhism.

“When we meet the army, we are shaking,” a Chin refugee pastor told HRW. “Whatever they want is law.”

The HRW report, entitled “We Are Like Forgotten People,” notes that soldiers frequently forced Christians to donate finances and labor to pagoda construction projects in areas where there were few or no Buddhist residents.

They also occasionally forced Christians to worship in Buddhist pagodas. One Chin pastor described how Burmese soldiers brought him to a pagoda and prodded him with their guns, commanding him to pray as a Buddhist.

“They said that this is a Buddhist country and that I should not practice Christianity,” he told HRW.

The military forced village headmen to present “volunteers” for military training or army construction projects and secured “donations” such as food or finance for army battalions. Soldiers severely beat or detained headmen if a village failed to meet quotas, seizing livestock or property in retribution.

Pastors often faced similar treatment, particularly if church members were accused – often without proof – of involvement with the Chin National Front insurgency group. HRW listed arrest, detention and torture as methods used against those accused of being part of the Chin National Front, based across the border in northeast India. Torture included beatings with sticks or guns and electric shocks via metal clips attached to high-voltage batteries. Such measures were also used to crush dissent against army policies such as failure to pay extortionate and arbitrary fees.

The military government promoted Buddhism over all other religions in Chin state through threats and inducements, destroying churches and other religious symbols, and restricting the printing and importing of Bibles and other Christian literature, HRW reported.

A judge in 1999 sentenced one man from Falam township to three years in prison for bringing Chin language Bibles into Burma, contravening Burma’s 1965 Censor Law. Authorities also burned 16,000 copies of Chin and other ethnic language Bibles brought into neighboring Sagaing Division, another Chin majority area, in 2000.


‘Campaign of Ethnocide’

CHRO’s 2004 report, “Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,” explained that Christianity had become inseparable from Chin culture following the arrival of American Baptist missionaries in 1899.

The report, based on information gathered in Chin state, gave numerous examples of the destruction of churches and crosses, the burning of Bibles and restrictions on other religious publications and activities between 1993 and 2004 – including the extrajudicial killings of four Chin Christians in 1993.

Burmese authorities routinely denied permission for the construction of new churches and required permits for large church gatherings, although lengthy bureaucratic processes meant that most of these gatherings were eventually postponed or cancelled.

A September 2008 U.S. Department of State report confirmed that Chin state authorities have not granted permission to build a new church since 2003.

As recently as last November, a government official ordered residents of Tayawaddy village in neighboring Sagaing Division to destroy the foundations of a new church building erected by members of a Chin Christian student fellowship. A report in the Chinland Guardian claimed villagers were subsequently ordered not to rent their homes to Chin students or the homes would be destroyed.


Enticement to Convert

CHRO’s report gave clear evidence of government support for coerced conversions. For example, the government offered free secular education to several children from impoverished families, only to place them as novice monks in Buddhist monasteries in Rangoon.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has also sent Buddhist monks to villages and towns throughout Chin state under the Hill Regions Buddhist Mission program, one of several Buddhist missionary initiatives highlighted on the ministry’s website. Chin residents who spoke to CHRO likened these monks to “military intelligence” operatives who worked in partnership with Burmese soldiers to control the Chin people.

According to one Chin resident, “Anyone who doesn’t abide by the monks’ orders is reported to the State Peace and Development Council [Burmese government officials] and punished by the army.”

Another Chin man from Matupi township attended a government-sponsored “social welfare” training session only to discover that it was a propaganda session led by a Buddhist monk.

“In the training we were taught the 17 facts of how to attack and disfigure Christians,” he explained.

The 17-point method encouraged converts to criticize Christian ways of life as corrupting culture in Burma, to point out weaknesses in Christianity, and to attack Christians by both violent and non-violent means.

“We were promised that 1,200 kyats per month [US$190] would be provided to those families who became Buddhist,” the training participant added. That amount of money is significant in the Burmese economy.

The instructor also ensured participants that they would be exempt from “portering” and other forms of forced labor and compulsory “donations” if they converted, and that the government would provide education for their children.

“I became a Buddhist because of such privileges rather than because I think Buddhism is better than Christianity,” the Chin participant told CHRO.


Religious Policy Elsewhere

According to CHRO, both the Burmese army and the monks are pursuing an unofficial government policy summed up in three words; “Amyo, Batha, Thathana,” which translates as “One race, one language, one religion” – or Burman, Burmese and Buddhist.

This policy was exemplified by the forced closure in January of more than 100 churches in the capital, Rangoon.

Officials on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were ordered to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches or face imprisonment. About 50 pastors attended, according to Burmese news agency Mizzima.

A CHRO spokesman told Compass yesterday that a significant number of these churches were ethnic rather than majority Burman churches.

In mid-January, officials ordered several other major Rangoon churches to close, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and an Assemblies of God Church. (See Compass Direct News, “Burma Clamps Down on Christians,” Jan. 21.)

Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs in January summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups, according to another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma.

In the late 1990s, Burma stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches in Rangoon and elsewhere, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

In a 2007 report describing religious persecution throughout Burma, including Chin state, Christian Solidarity Worldwide cited the “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma,” a 17-point document that had circulated widely in Rangoon. Allegedly authorized by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the program’s first point declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs subsequently pressured religious organizations to publicly condemn CSW’s report and deny all claims of religious discrimination in Burma.  

Report from Compass Direct News