Grattan on Friday: Bill Shorten faces a summer of uncertainty


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It is not impossible that the Greens, who started the citizenship crisis with the resignation of then-senator Scott Ludlam, could end up winners from this fiasco that has cut a swathe through the parliament and threatens more havoc.

Wednesday’s reference to the High Court of Labor’s David Feeney, who holds the Melbourne seat of Batman, has certainly put a gleam in the Greens’ eyes.

Feeney hasn’t been able to produce the documentation to confirm the renunciation of British citizenship which he says he made a decade ago.

Unless the paperwork turns up or the High Court shows a leniency that hasn’t been in its nature recently, a byelection in Batman would give the Greens a big chance of installing a second MP to keep Adam Bandt company in the House of Representatives.

Bill Shorten is understandably livid about Feeney, who before the last election overlooked declaring a A$2.3 million house, only narrowly held off the Greens in his seat, and now, if he triggers a byelection, could reduce the opposition’s numbers. No wonder there’s speculation he’d be ditched as Labor’s candidate.

And Feeney’s rank carelessness, to describe it most charitably, comes on top of the recent new revelations about Labor senator Sam Dastyari’s conduct, showing how deeply the New South Wales numbers man has been in the thrall of the Chinese, in particular of a Chinese business benefactor.

It’s made for a very uncomfortable end to the parliamentary year for Shorten, who in previous months had most things breaking his way.

The citizenship crisis had taken a heavy toll on the government, with a minister and the Senate president gone from parliament, and the deputy prime minister and a Liberal backbencher forced to byelections.

To put things in perspective: yes, they all failed to do due diligence, but none of them compromised themselves in the way Dastyari did.

Now it’s Labor in the crosshairs. The situation of several of Shorten’s MPs – leaving aside the egregious case of Feeney – is problematic, and Shorten’s boast about Labor vetting processes is being seen as hubristic.

It will be months before Labor will know what damage the citizenship crisis might do to it.

It will be more contained if the High Court, when it considers the case of ACT senator Katy Gallagher who was also referred this week, accepts the ALP argument that an MP is constitutionally eligible provided they took reasonable steps to renounce foreign citizenship before nominating, even though confirmation didn’t come through by then.

If, however, the court were to find that the candidate needs the confirmation before they nominate, that could trigger byelections in three ALP seats (Braddon in Tasmania, Longman in Queensland and Fremantle in Western Australia) as well as in Mayo, held by crossbencher Rebekha Sharkie.

The Gallagher case will set a precedent for the other MPs with similar circumstances (although if Gallagher were knocked out her Senate position would be filled by a countback, not a byelection).

While byelection swings usually go against governments (Saturday’s result in New England notwithstanding), the thought of having to fight in the marginal seats of Longman and Braddon would make Labor nervous.

Even if it turned out that the only byelection were in Feeney’s seat, the strong prospect of a loss there would sour and distract Shorten’s new year.

Similarly, the extent of the fallout from the Dastyari affair is not yet clear.

There is no defence for Dastyari’s action in warning his Chinese benefactor that his phone was likely tapped, so they should talk outside. That was the core of the latest revelations, which came on top of earlier ones about Dastyari receiving financial largesse and toeing China’s policy line on the South China Sea.

But from Shorten’s point of view, dealing with the Dastyari issue is fraught.

All Shorten has done this time is strip him of what minor responsibilities he had.

It’s fanciful to think Shorten would ever contemplate trying to throw him out of the Labor Party, which would mean taking on the NSW right, and would reduce Labor’s Senate numbers.

But while Dastyari stays, Shorten is open to Coalition attacks and hostage to anything further that may come out – just when the government is cracking down on attempts by foreign interests to influence Australian politics. Dastyari might face an inquiry by the Senate privileges committee.

It would be a gift for Shorten if Dastyari were to decide rehabilitation is too long a road and he should look for other career opportunities.

The problems that Shorten currently faces highlight certain weaknesses that his critics identify in his political approach.

The citizenship issue shows the way he plays the tactical game relentlessly, with insufficient appreciation of how things can come back to bite you.

Of course Labor would make the most of the government’s embarrassment over its dual citizens, but Shorten left himself little wriggle room when he insisted for so long Labor was fireproofed, despite warning signs it mightn’t be.

When its vulnerability was exposed this week, Shorten doubled down. After all MPs’ declarations became public, Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus produced a list of Coalition members who Labor said hadn’t supplied enough evidence that they were not dual citizens. One was Josh Frydenberg, whose mother had been fleeing persecution. Frydenberg’s inclusion in the Dreyfus list brought rebukes from two Labor MPs.

This was followed by Labor’s unsuccessful attempt to refer four Liberals (not including Frydenberg) to the High Court, as well as four of its own and Sharkie.

The move on the Liberals looked like seeking cover, especially when one of them, Nola Marino, produced a letter from Italian authorities saying she did not have Italian citizenship.

Surely it is adequate to rely on a country’s word that someone is not a citizen? Certainly Labor’s deputy leader Tanya Plibersek is using a letter from Slovenian authorities.

The Dastyari affair raises questions about how far Shorten is willing to go for those who are politically important to him.

Dastyari had to leave the front bench after the initial revelations about his Chinese links.

But within months he was given a partial leg up, becoming deputy opposition whip in the Senate. This seemed undue haste, and it raises concerns about Shorten appearing beholden to his allies. We see another example in his refusal to take a tougher line towards the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Despite the setbacks, Shorten is still very well-placed, compared with Turnbull, as the end of 2017 approaches, although the December 16 Bennelong byelection will play into this balance.

The ConversationNevertheless, it is Shorten, rather than Turnbull, who appears to face the bigger uncertainties in the early part of 2018.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/xac9s-7e77c6?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Turnbull and Shorten haggle over detail of citizenship disclosure system


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten are inching toward an agreement on the form of a citizenship declaration that each MP would have to make within weeks.

The two met in Melbourne on Wednesday, with Turnbull hoping they would finalise the declaration. But Shorten, who was accompanied by Labor Senate leader Penny Wong, had two objections to the proposal outlined by Turnbull earlier this week.

Shorten told a news conference later that Labor believed the declaration should outline what steps a person whose parents or grandparents had been born overseas had taken to investigate whether they were a dual citizen. Also, Labor wanted a shorter timeframe for MPs submitting the declaration.

Under Turnbull’s plan, an MP would state the details of where they were born and where their parents were born, and their belief that they were not a dual citizen. The declarations would have to be submitted 21 days after the Senate and the House of Representatives respectively passed a motion approving the new decoration system.

The government plans to move motions for the declaration in the Senate next week and when the House of Representatives meets on November 27.

It emerged on Wednesday that the government was proposing to bring the parliament back in late December to consider the declarations, which would open the way for any MPs who were thought to be dual citizens to be referred to the High Court. But Shorten seized on the point that a special sitting of parliament would be very costly for the taxpayer.

Shorten said the statements should be in by December 1, five days after the lower house resumes, and a week before parliament rises for Christmas.

“This would allow the disclosures to be checked out and then if there are any problems requiring referral to the High Court, that could be done in the last week of parliament,” Shorten said.

On Labor’s proposed tougher test, Shorten said: “Mr Turnbull’s resolution only goes to what the actual individual MP might believe, but I think that we require, and the High Court set, a higher test of us. Labor is not going to support watering down the High Court decisions to help a few MPs scrape back into parliament.”

Late on Wednesday the government and opposition were exchanging proposals for changes to the wording of the motion.

Both Turnbull and Shorten described the talks as “constructive”.

“We are certainly agreed on the need for disclosure of the kind that I’ve set out in the resolution,” Turnbull told a separate news conference.

“We’ve also agreed that the matter must be dealt with before the end of the year.

“By that, I mean that the disclosures should be made before the end of the year and the House and the Senate should have the opportunity, having considered those disclosures, whether any members or senators should be referred to the High Court … of course it may be that nobody needs to be referred to the High Court.”

Meanwhile, Liberal backbencher John Alexander, the member for Bennelong, is waiting for British Home Office advice on whether he is a dual British citizen. The issue revolves around whether Alexander’s father, who was born in Britain, renounced his citizenship – as Alexander believed.

If Alexander turns out to be ineligible to sit in parliament the government would face a byelection in a seat it would be vulnerable to losing.

The government is homing in on Labor MP Justine Keay, from Tasmania, who moved to renounce her UK citizenship before she nominated but did not receive confirmation until after the election. Labor insists that Keay met the requirement to make every reasonable effort to renounce a foreign citizenship.

Issues are being raised about several other MPs. The crisis has already claimed half-a-dozen victims.

Postscript

Four Liberal senators including a minister have nominated for Senate president – but the Nationals New South Wales senator John “Wacka” Williams has said he will not contest. Special Minister of State Scott Ryan has nominated to be the government’s candidate, as have David Fawcett, Dean Smith and Ian Macdonald. If Ryan were successful that would open up a vacancy in the outer ministry.

The government’s candidate will be chosen before the Senate meets on Monday.

Tasmanian Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson will contest the position against the government candidate but has no hope of success.

The ConversationThe Nationals have never held the position. Williams’ bid was seen as part of the tensions between the Coalition partners in the wake of the citizenship crisis which has claimed two Nationals ministers, forcing Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce to a byelection and ending – at least for the foreseeable future – the political career of Fiona Nash.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/k3zus-7afe23?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Turnbull proposes all MPs make declarations on citizenship


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The Turnbull government is trying to limit the damage from the citizenship crisis with a plan to have all MPs make declarations about their circumstances.

The motion, agreed to by cabinet on Monday, will be moved in the Senate next week and in the House of Representatives when it resumes late this month.

The move came as questions continued about the status of Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg, whose mother was born in Budapest but arrived in Australia stateless, and assistant minister Alex Hawke, born of a Greek mother.

Fairfax Media late Monday reported that Liberal backbencher John Alexander, who holds the New South Wales seat of Bennelong, might be a dual British citizen by descent because his father was born in the UK. It quoted a spokesman saying that Alexander “believes” his father renounced his British citizenship before Alexander was born.

Last week Senate President Stephen Parry quit parliament when he found he was a dual British citizen by descent.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten – who proposed on Friday a universal disclosure by MPs which was dismissed by Turnbull – said he would meet with Turnbull on Wednesday to discuss the move. But Shorten said this was “a rather dramatic about-face” and questioned what was behind Turnbull’s change of heart.

Section 44 of the Constitution prohibits a dual citizen being eligible to sit in parliament.

Under the government’s plan, MPs will have to state within 21 days of the resolutions being passed in their respective houses:

  • that when they nominated they were not, to the best of their “knowledge and belief”, a citizen of any other country, and that they are not currently a dual citizen;

  • the place and date of their birth, and their citizenship at that time;

  • the places and dates of their parents’ births; and

  • whether the MP has ever been a citizen of another country, and if so, the details and evidence of the time and manner of the renunciation of that citizenship or how otherwise it ended.

Turnbull said the move was about transparency, confidence and standing up for the Constitution.

He stressed this would not be an “audit” – for which there have been widespread calls – because an audit would involve bringing in an outsider.

“The obligation to comply with the Constitution, in terms of being qualified to sit in the House or the Senate, is on the shoulders of each and every member and senator,” he told a news conference after the cabinet discussion. “That’s why this will be their declarations and their disclosures.”

The disclosure would be similar to those made by MPs about their pecuniary interests and they would be provided to the registrar of members’ interests. If anyone made a false statement they would be in contempt of parliament, with parliament able to impose penalties – although in practice penalties are not imposed for inaccuracies in statements of pecuniary interests.

Turnbull stressed that it is only the High Court that can adjudicate on citizenship status. If the declaration process threw up instances of dual citizenship, the House of Representatives or the Senate could refer the cases to the court.

“Members and senators have been put squarely on notice now, and so they will be turning their mind to their own affairs and the issues of … foreign citizenship,” Turnbull said.

He said in recent instances foreign citizenship had come about in two ways – citizenship by descent, as with Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash, and where somebody had been a citizen of another country and had not properly renounced that citizenship, as with Malcolm Roberts.

Turnbull said the Liberal federal director Andrew Hirst “has told me that all of the Liberal Party members believe that they are in compliance with the Constitution”.

Details about grandparents are not being required, although they are relevant to citizenship by descent.

Asked about their omission, Turnbull said it was a question of “remoteness and knowledge”.

“I think we may find that some members will have to do quite a bit of research to determine the place and date of birth of their parents, let alone their grandparents or potentially great-grandparents. It’s simply trying to get a balance between what is reasonably accessible and remote.”

He said some people “when they do due diligence might come to the conclusion that they are not eligible and they choose to resign”.

“On the other hand, the circumstances that are published may be of a nature that other members say, well, you may be believe you are eligible but I do not.” And then the latter member could move the case be referred to the court.

The declarations would also be made after an election.

Turnbull said there were many aspects of the recent decision by the court – which ruled five of the seven current or former MPs before it were ineligible when elected – that needed to be worked on for future elections.

“For example we have to consider whether people who nominate for parliament should not be obliged to provide information like this as part of the nomination process, even if only to make sure they turn their minds to it,” Turnbull said.

Turnbull foreshadowed that there could be further cases. “The court made its decision in the terms it did. It may give rise to more cases.”

“The High Court decision does create some real challenges because they have said that knowledge is not material. The fact is that very often people do not know.

“It may be that they do not know because it is very hard to know. Maybe they do not know because they have not thought about it,” Turnbull said.

Liberal backbencher Eric Abetz, who last week called for an audit, welcomed the “prime minister’s strong and decisive action to restore the integrity of the parliament”.

“I am confident that it will go a long way to ensure the parliament is seen to have integrity not only in the short term but well into the future,” Abetz said. “I am appreciative that the prime minister has taken on board the views of the backbench on this issue.”

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said Turnbull’s plan was “full of holes” and did “nothing to end the uncertainty”. The Greens would continue to press for an audit. There needed to be a “forensic look at the documentation” when there were questions about a person’s potential dual citizenship.

Australian Conservatives leader Cory Bernardi tweeted:

The Conversation

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Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

China Keeps Church Leaders from Public Worship Attempt


Police put pastors under house arrest over weekend, before detaining at least 160 on Sunday.

DUBLIN, April 11 (CDN) — Police in China held “about two dozen” pastors and elders of Beijing’s Shouwang Church under house arrest or at police stations over the weekend to keep them from attending a Sunday worship service in a public location, according to Bob Fu of the China Aid Association.

Three top leaders of the church remain in jail and several others are under strict surveillance after  hundreds of Chinese police yesterday cordoned off the walkway to a third-floor outdoor meeting area adjacent to a property purchased by the church in Haidian district, Beijing, and arrested at least 160 members of the 1,000-strong church as they tried to assemble.

The church members were bundled into waiting vans and buses to prevent them from meeting as planned in the public space, Reuters and The Associated Press (AP) reported, and most had been released by today.

Church leaders claimed officials had pressured their landlords, forcing them out of both rented and purchased locations and leaving them no choice but to worship in the open.

“The government cornered them into making this decision,” Fu said, adding that the church had initially tried to register with the government. “They waited for two years, and when the government still denied them registration, they tried to keep a low profile before finally deciding to buy the Daheng New Epoch Technology building.”

Shouwang is a very unique church, he said.

“Most members are well-educated, and they include China’s top religious scholars and even former government officials, which may be a factor in the government’s response to them,” he said.

As one of the largest house churches in Beijing, Shouwang is unique in insisting on meeting together rather than splitting the congregation into smaller groups meeting in several locations, Fu said. Zion church, for example, may have more members than Shouwang, but members meet in smaller groups across the city.

“This is based on the founding fathers’ vision for Shouwang Church to be a ‘city on a hill,’” as stated in the Bible in Matthew chapter five, Fu explained. “So they’ve made a conscious decision not to go back to the small-group model. Either the government gives them the keys to their building or gives them written permission to worship in another location, or they will continue meeting in the open.”

Police arrested anyone who showed up to take part in the service, AP reported.

 

‘Most Basic Necessity’

Church leaders last week issued a statement to the congregation explaining their decision to meet outdoors.

“It may not be the best decision, but at this time it is an inevitable one,” the statement said, before reminding church members that the landlord of their premises at the time, the Old Story Club restaurant, had come under government pressure and repeatedly asked them to leave, while the previous owners of the Daheng New Epoch Technology building, purchased a year ago by the church for 27.5 million RMB (US$4.2 million), had refused to hand over the keys. (See, “Church in China to Risk Worshipping in Park,” April 7.)

The church had already met outdoors twice in November 2009 before officials gave tacit consent to move to the Old Story Club restaurant. Officials, however, again prevented Shouwang Church from meeting in May and August of last year.

Fu said it was common for government officials across China to pressure landlords into revoking leases for house church groups.

“For example, right now I know of at least two churches that were made ‘homeless’ in Guangzhou this week, including one church with at least 200 members,” he said.

Shouwang’s statement pointed to Article 36 of China’s Constitution, which grants every citizen freedom to worship, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ratified by China, which states that every citizen has the right to observe his religion or belief “either alone or in community with others and in public or private.”

For this reason the church planned to meet outdoors until officials granted legal, written permission to worship in an approved location – preferably at the building purchased by the church.

The document also advised church members not to resist if they were held under house arrest or arrested at the Sunday venue.

“Objectively speaking, our outdoor worship must deliver this message to the various departments of our government: attending Sunday worship is the most basic necessity for Christians in their life of faith,” the statement concluded.

The number of Protestant house church Christians in China is estimated at between 45 and 60 million, according to Yu Jianrong, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Rural Development Institute, with a further 18 to 30 million people attending government-approved churches.

Report from Compass Direct News
http://www.compassdirect.org

Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church


Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.

 

Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)

 

SIDEBAR

Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

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

Christian in Bhutan Imprisoned for Showing Film on Christ


Court sentences him to three years on dubious charge of ‘attempt to promote civil unrest.’

NEW DELHI, October 18 (CDN) — A court in predominantly Buddhist Bhutan has sentenced a Christian to three years in prison for “attempting to promote civil unrest” by screening films on Christianity.

A local court in Gelephu convicted Prem Singh Gurung, a 40-year-old ethnic Nepalese citizen from Sarpang district in south Bhutan, on Oct. 6, according to the government-run daily Kuensel.

Gurung was arrested four months ago after local residents complained that he was showing Christian films in Gonggaon and Simkharkha villages in Jigmecholing block. Gurung invited villagers to watch Nepali movies, and between each feature he showed films on Christianity.

Government attorneys could not prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that Gurung promoted civil unrest, and therefore “he was charged with an attempt to promote civil unrest,” the daily reported.

Gurung was also charged with violation of the Bhutan Information, Communication and Media Act of 2006. Sections 105(1) and 110 of this law require that authorities examine all films before public screening.

A Christian from Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, told Compass that the conviction of Gurung disturbed area villagers.

While Gurung has the right to appeal, it remained unclear if he had the resources to take that course.

Both Gonggaon and Simkharkha are virtually inaccessible. It can take up to 24 and 48 hours to reach the villages from the nearest road.

“Both villages do not have electricity,” the daily reported. “But Prem Singh Gurung, with the help of some people, is believed to have carried a projector and a generator to screen the movies in the village.”

Over 75 percent of the 683,407 people in Bhutan are Buddhist, mainly from western and eastern parts. Hindus, mostly ethnic Nepalese from southern Bhutan, are estimated to be around 22 percent of the population.

It is also estimated that around 6,000 Bhutanese, mostly from south, are Christian in this landlocked nation between India and China. However, their presence is not officially acknowledged in the country. As a result, they practice their faith from the confines of their homes, with no Christian institution officially registered.

Buddhism is the state religion in Bhutan, and the government is mandated to protect its culture and religion according to the 2008 constitution. As in other parts of South Asia, people in Bhutan mistakenly believe that Christianity is a Western faith and that missionaries give monetary benefits to convert people from other religions.

Yesterday’s Kuensel published an opinion piece by a Bhutanese woman from New York who described herself as “an aspiring Buddhist” condemning both the conviction of Gurung and Christian “tactics.”

“Although we may not like the tactics used by the Christians to proselytize or ‘sell’ their religion to impoverished and vulnerable groups, let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture, in terms of religious tolerance, and what constitutes ‘promoting civil unrest,’” wrote Sonam Ongmo. “If we truly want to establish ourselves as a well-functioning democracy, with equal rights for all, let’s start with one of the fundamental ones – the right to choose one’s faith. We have nothing to worry about Buddhism losing ground to Christianity, but we will if, as a predominantly Buddhist state, we start to deny people the right to their faith.”

While her view is representative of liberal Buddhists in Bhutan, a reader’s response in a forum on Kuensel’s website reflected the harder line.

“These Christians are a cancer to our society,” wrote a reader identifying himself as The Last Dragon. “They had crusades after crusades – we don’t need that. We are very happy with Buddhism. Once Christianity is perfect – as they always claim [it] to be, then let’s see.”

In July, the government of Bhutan proposed an amendment in the Penal Code of Bhutan which would punish “proselytizing” that “uses coercion or other forms of inducement.” (See,  “Buddhist Bhutan Proposes ‘Anti-Conversion’ Law,” July 21.)

Christian persecution arose in Bhutan in the 1980s, when the king began a “one-nation, one-people” campaign to “protect the country’s sovereignty and cultural integrity.” Ethnic Nepalese, however, protested the move on grounds of discrimination. Authorities responded militarily, leading to the expulsion or voluntary migration of over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese, many of whom were secret Christians, to the Nepal side of the border in Jhapa in the early 1990s.

An absolute monarchy for over 100 years, Bhutan became a democratic, constitutional monarchy in March 2008, in accordance with the wish of former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who served from 1972 to 2006. Since the advent of democracy, the country has brought in many reforms. It is generally believed that the government is gradually giving more freedom to its citizens.

The present king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and Prime Minister Lyonchen Jigmey Thinley, are respected by almost all Bhutanese and are seen as benevolent rulers.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims Force Expat Christian Teacher to Flee Maldives


Mistaking compass she drew for a cross, parents of students threatened to expel her.

NEW DELHI, October 5 (CDN) — Authorities in the Maldives last week had to transport a Christian teacher from India off one of the Islamic nation’s islands after Muslim parents of her students threatened to expel her for “preaching Christianity.”

On Wednesday night (Sept. 29) a group of angry Muslim parents stormed the government school on the island of Foakaindhoo, in Shaviyani Atoll, accusing Geethamma George of drawing a cross in her class, a source at Foakaindhoo School told Compass.

“There were only 10 teachers to defend Geethamma George when a huge crowd gathered outside the school,” the source said by telephone. “Numerous local residents of the island also joined the parents’ protest.”

The school administration promptly sought the help of officials from the education ministry.

“Fearing that the teacher would be physically attacked, the officials took her out of the island right away,” the source said. “She will never be able to come back to the island, and nor is she willing to do so. She will be given a job in another island.”

A few days earlier, George, a social studies teacher, had drawn a compass to teach directions to Class VI students. But the students, who knew little English, mistook the drawing to be a cross and thought she was trying to preach Christianity, the source said. The students complained to their parents, who in turn issued a warning to the school.

Administrators at the school set up a committee to investigate the allegation and called for a meeting with parents on Thursday (Sept. 30) to present their findings. The committee found that George had drawn a compass as part of a geography lesson.

“However, the parents arrived the previous night to settle the matter outside the school,” said the source.

According to local newspaper Haveeru, authorities transferred George to the nearby island of Funadhoo “after the parents threatened to tie and drag her off of the island.”

The teacher, who worked at the school for three years, is originally from the south Indian coastal state of Kerala. Many Christians from Kerala and neighboring Tamil Nadu state in India are working as teachers and doctors in the Maldives.

Preaching or practicing a non-Muslim faith is forbidden under Maldivian law, which does not recognize any faith other than Islam. The more than 300,000 citizens of the Maldives are all Sunni Muslims.

A string of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean off Sri Lanka in South Asia, the Maldives is the only country after Saudi Arabia that claims to have a 100 percent Muslim population. As per its constitution, only a Muslim can be a citizen of the country. Importing any literature that contradicts Islam is against the law.

Many of the more than 70,000 expatriate workers in the Maldives are Christian, but they are allowed to practice their faith only inside their respective homes. They cannot even get together for prayer or worship in each other’s houses – doing so has resulted in the arrest and deportation of expatriates in the past.

The Maldives was ruled by an authoritarian, conservative Muslim president, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, for 30 years. The nation became a multi-party democracy in 2008 with Mohamed Nasheed – from the largely liberal Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) – as the new president.

Gayoom’s right-wing party, the Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP), however, managed to win a simple majority in the People’s Majlis – as the parliament is known in the Maldives – in the 2009 parliamentary election. The Maldives follows the presidential system.

The DRP-led opposition often criticizes Nasheed’s government, accusing it of being liberal in cultural and religious matters, which DRP leaders claim will have a bearing on the country’s sovereignty and identity.

A key ally of the MDP, the Adhaalath Party, also holds conservative views on religion and culture.

Many in Maldivian society, along with religious and political leaders, believe religious freedom is not healthy for the nation’s survival, although the Maldives does not perceive any threat from nearby countries.

Report from Compass Direct News

Alleged Bomber of Christian Boy in Israel to Stand Trial


Hearing could determine whether Jack Teitel is transferred from mental hospital.

ISTANBUL, September 3 (CDN) — An Israeli man accused of planting a homemade bomb that almost killed the son of a Messianic Jewish pastor in Ariel, Israel has been declared competent to stand trial.

Jack Teitel, 37, who in November was indicted on two charges of pre-meditated murder, three charges of attempted murder and numerous weapons charges, is expected to enter a plea on Sunday (Sept. 5).

David and Leah Ortiz, parents of the teenage victim, said that the 10 months since the indictment have been difficult but their stance toward Teitel remains the same; they have forgiven him for the attack but want him to face justice before a judge and seek salvation from God.

If nothing else, they said, they want him incarcerated to keep other Messianic Jews from being attacked either by Teitel or those following his lead.

“He’s dangerous,” Leah Ortiz said. “He’s an extremely dangerous person. He’s totally unrepentant.”

Sunday’s plea will open the way for a trial expected to start within weeks and last for more than six months. Officials at a hearing possibly the same day as the scheduled plea will decide whether Teitel will be moved from the mental hospital where he has been held for most of his detainment.

It is possible Teitel will enter no plea on Sunday. He has publically stated that he doesn’t “recognize the jurisdiction” of Jerusalem District Court.

 

Bombing

On March 20, 2008, Ami Ortiz, then 15, opened a gift basket that someone had left anonymously at his family’s home in Ariel. The basket disappeared in a massive explosion that destroyed much of the Ortiz home and shattered Ami’s body.

When he arrived at the hospital, Ami was clinging to life. He was bleeding profusely, had burns covering much of his body and was full of needles, screws and glass fragments the bomb-maker had built into the device.

The doctors had little hope for him and listed his condition as “anush,” meaning his soul was about to leave his body.

After countless hours of surgery and even more spent in prayer, Ami went from “near dead,” to burned and blind and eventually to playing basketball on a national youth team. Both his parents said his recovery was nothing short of a miracle from God.

 

‘Most Radical Evangelist’

When Teitel was arrested in October 2009, police found him hanging up posters celebrating the shooting of two teenagers at a gay and lesbian community center in Tel Aviv.

Teitel’s background is still somewhat of a mystery. An emigrant from the United States, he became an Israeli citizen in 2000, got married not long afterwards and is the father of four children. Usually portrayed in Israeli media as part ultra-orthodox ideologue and part fringe survivalist, it is clear that Teitel was motivated by a fascination with end-times prophecy and an extremely violent interpretation of Judaism and Jewish nationalism.

He is a self-described follower of such anti-missionary groups as Yad L’Achim. According to authorities, Teitel sought to kill those he deemed enemies of traditional Judaism: Palestinians, homosexuals, liberal Jewish intellectuals and, in the Ortiz case, Messianic Jews.

David Ortiz is well known in Israel, both for his activities in the Jewish community and for his efforts to expose Palestinians to the gospel.

“He said the reason why he wanted to kill me was that I was the most radical in evangelism, so I had to be first,” said Ortiz, who has seen transcripts of Teitel’s confessions.

Along with the Ortiz case, police said Teitel is responsible for the June 1997 shooting death of Samir Bablisi, a Palestinian taxi driver who was found in his cab with a single bullet wound to his head. Two months later, police said, Teitel allegedly shot Isa Jabarin, a Palestinian shepherd who was giving him driving directions to Jerusalem.

Police also said that Teitel attempted to burn down a monastery and unsuccessfully planted several bombs. He also is accused of the September 2008 bombing of Zeev Sternhell of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The bombing left the emeritus history professor slightly wounded.

During one court hearing, Teitel flashed a victory sign and reportedly said, “It was a pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done. I have no regrets.”

 

Long Road to Trial

David Ortiz said that as bad as the bombing itself was, waiting for the trial has been yet another ordeal.

As officials investigated the bombing, police harassed Messianic Jewish friends of theirs, saying, “If you are Jewish, why did you become a Christian?” Ortiz said.

The Ortiz family had to sue police and pay 5,000 shekels (US$1,320) to obtain a copy of a security camera video belonging to the family that police had seized as evidence. The video shows Teitel laying the basket at the Ortiz home.

“We had to hire a lawyer because we understood clearly that our rights as victims had to be protected,” said David Ortiz.

Particularly galling to the pastor has been the hands-off response of government officials to the attack.

“We are the only family in Israel that has been a victim of an attack that hasn’t been visited by a government official,” he said, adding that officials have made no public condemnation of the attack. “If the leaders do not condemn an act, it emboldens others who want to do the same thing.”

According to the International Religious Freedom Report 2009 issued by the U.S. Department of State, there are 10,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. The report documents several cases of violence against Messianic Jews, including cases where baptismal services have been disrupted, Messianic Jews have been beaten and Christian literature has been torched.

 

God Shows Up

Leah Ortiz said that what Teitel intended for evil, God meant for good in order to reach people.

“The Lord has taken the worst tragedy that could possibly happen and has used it for the greatest good that He possibly could,” she said.

The incident, and how the Ortiz family has dealt with it, has become a lightning rod of sorts in Israel, forcing people to think more seriously about the claims of the Messianic Jews.

In a place filled with the type of hatred that causes people to strap bombs to their bodies to kill others, the attack has given people a reason to think and, for some, to choose forgiveness and peace.

Ortiz said he has gotten calls from Palestinians who had said if he could forgive a man who bombed his child, then they can forgive what has happened to them. Orthodox Jews have called him and asked forgiveness for their hatred toward Messianic Jews. Muslims have called Ortiz offering blood for transfusions for Ami.

Ortiz said he was devastated after the attack, but that he has been blessed to see God working “supernaturally” through the incident. Ami is an example of God’s grace and healing power, Ortiz said, explaining, “Ami has been a wonder within my own eyes. How could anyone who went through so much be so peaceful?”

Ami’s high school friends, most of them not Messianic Jews, have sought him out and asked him about the ordeal.  Ortiz said he thinks God will use him in a big way.

His wife explained, “I have that sense this is about something bigger. This is something bigger than what has happened to us and to our family.”

Report from Compass Direct News