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 


Reiterating his pledge to continue mounting efforts for a repeal of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) has assured the family of a blasphemy-accused that the APMA would not rest until release of Dr. Robin, a Pakistani Christian homeopathic doctor who was arrested in May 2008 after he was accused of blasphemy.

Dr. Robin was accused of passing derogatory remarks against the beard of Prophet Muhammad.

He is currently detained in Gujranawala jail. Dr. Robin’s family was forced to go into hiding as the family members of the accused cannot stay at their home after the stigma of blasphemy has been slapped on any of their family members.

The family of Dr. Robin and some 20 Christian residents of district Hafizabad had come to see the APMA Chief; Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, after Dr. Robin was accused of blasphemy. They apprised him of the insecurity they had become exposed to after Robin was implicated in a blasphemy case.

The APMA has been extending financial support to the family as well as free legal aid to Dr. Robin since the occurrence of alleged blasphemy by Dr. Robin.

The family of the accused including Veenus, 50, Tariq 42, Waseem Bhatti, 32 and Francis Masih, a relative of Dr. Robin came to the APMA office in Islamabad on October 3, 2008.

Describing the fear and uncertainty that gripped the family members following leveling of blasphemy charges on Dr. Robin, Waseem told ANS that they felt as if a roof had been snatched from them.

“We felt secure after we met the APMA Chief Shahbaz Bhatti,” he said.

“We wanted our voice to be raised. We were desperately looking for someone to steer us out of the problem we were confronting. We were praying for some help. We prayed to God and we knew our prayers were heard when we met Shahbaz Bhatti”, said Waseem.

The young Christian man went on to say that fears of sorts were assailing the family’s mind after detention of Dr. Robin. They (fears) left us disturbed and helpless all the more, he said.

After incarceration of Dr. Robin, he said the family had lost the breadwinner and they were not in a position of hiring a lawyer.

“You need a lawyer to defend you even in a simple dispute. We knew we had to hire a competent defense counsel for Dr. Robin. It was again Mr. Shahbaz who extended free legal aid for Dr. Robin”, said Waseem as tears ran down his cheeks.

Waseem, who works as an animator in a local Non Governmental Organization (NGO) feared that it had become virtually impossible for Dr. Robin to run his clinic at the same locality.

He also ruled out possibility of any of his family members staying at the same place after leveling of blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin.

“His (Dr. Robin’s) family members are living in hiding. They have been able to find a roof above their heads with the help the APMA Chief extended to the family but you still feel alienated. You take time to settle down at a new place. You continue to live a tension-ridden life”, he said.

“The children of Dr. Robin have been robbed of fatherly love. Michael Rose, the youngest of Dr. Robin’s children used to stay in a hostel. He does not feel comfortable staying at the hostel now”, said Waseem.

In response to a question he said that during this period of tribulation Dr. Robin had emerged as a strong Christian. He said his (Dr. Robin’s) belief in Christ had only become stronger.

Tariq, a relative of Dr. Robin told ANS that Dr. Robin wished to be released as soon as possible.

He said the incident had come as a big jolt to the children of Dr. Robin.

He said they had not been able to concentrate on their studies fully after Robin was arrested by the police.

Francis, brother-in-law of Dr. Robin called for repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Citing his talks with a couple of Muslim friends, he said that they were of the view that the law should be repealed.

“My Muslim friends admitted that a thorough investigation should be made before lodging of a blasphemy-related Police First Information Report (FIR)”, said Tariq.

Tariq disclosed that he had been able to record a conversation between the complainant and some family members of Dr. Robin in which the complainant tried to do a “deal” with the family of the accused.

According to Tariq, the complainant said that he would withdraw charges against Dr. Robin if his family agreed to pay him money.

He claimed he recorded the conversation on September 19, a day ahead of the hearing of Dr. Robin’s case in a lower court.

Echoing a grave concern of Pakistani Christians, who like their fellow Muslim Pakistanis want their concerns to be highlighted on national and print media, Tariq said that Dr. Robin’s case only drew marginal coverage of the incident.

Lashing out at the police he alleged that the police failed to provide adequate security to Dr. Robin’s family.

“If the Police had provided security to Dr. Robin’s family and his vulnerable relatives then they might have decided to continue staying in Hafizabad but in the absence of any such security the family was forced to go into hiding”, he said.

In an apparent bid to support his disbelief in the police, he said that police did not take initiative for rescuing Dr. Robin’s family “rather some local Christians entered Dr. Robin’s home at about 3 am and rescued the family members who had become prone to attack by the angry Muslim residents of Hafizabad”.

“Do you want us to jump into fire”, he quoted a police official as saying, who Tariq and other Christian residents of the area wanted to rescue Dr. Robin’s family members.

Post-arrest situation

Tariq said when he and some other members of Dr. Robin’s family went to Dr. Robin’s place to collect some clothes, books and some other daily use items they saw a “shocking scene”.

“Not even a single thing was at its place. There were visible signs of human presence at Dr. Robin’s house. It was not hard to conclude that some people have been living at Dr. Robin’s house. We saw crumbs of bread, chicken bones, and unwashed dishes.

Dr. Robin’s house had been ransacked”, said Tariq, who looked scared while sketching the ransacked home of Dr. Robin.

He said that the lower court rejected a post-arrest bail petition, prompting the APMA to file a petition in Lahore High Court.

Asked who could have inhabited Dr. Robin’s house after his arrest and exiting of his family members, Tariq said that the fundamentalist Muslims of the area could have maintained their presence at Dr. Robin’s house. Nobody could have dared entering Dr. Robin’s home if the police had been vigilant, he said.

Tariq disclosed that a small but angry Muslim crowd took out a rally in a bid to pressurize the court.

He said that participants of the rally were holding placards, which were inscribed with slogans, “Give death to Dr. Robin.”

He disclosed that the witnesses at a court hearing had submitted their written version on legal papers that Dr. Robin did not commit blasphemy.

He said he learned that Dr. Robin’s lawyer also gave precedents of post-arrest bails granted to blasphemy accused in the past “but even then the judge did not grant post-arrest bail to Dr. Robin”.

Talking to the APMA Chief, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, Veenus said that recording of the alleged conversation between the complainant and some family members further angered the local Muslims.

Thanking Mr. Shahbaz, she said she was optimistic that Dr. Robin would soon be home due to the APMA’s efforts.

She said: “I urge the Christians across the world to pray for release of my husband from prison. I cannot give fatherly love to my children. We want him back as soon as possible”, she said while talking to the APMA Chief”.

The APMA Chief told ANS that he was going to urge authorities to do an in-camera trial of Dr. Robin for security purposes. An application in this regard would be moved soon, he said.

He assured the family of the accused that Dr. Robin would soon be with them.

“The APMA is concerned. It (APMA) has been since leveling of the blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin. We stand by you at this critical juncture in Robin’s and your life,” Shahbaz told the family of Dr. Robin who had come to see him at his office in Islamabad.

“It is the case of entire Christian community. When children of Dr. Robin talk to me by phone, I could feel the agony in their voices. I understand what they are living through. The APMA will do all it can to ensure expedient release of Dr. Robin”, said Shahbaz.

“We understand that the Pakistan blasphemy laws are being misused to settle personal scores. Religious enmity, prejudice and intolerance have been found behind filing of blasphemy cases in the past”, he maintained.

“God will move in His own mysterious way. Dr. Robin will be with you soon”, the APMA Chief told Dr. Robin’s spouse, Veenus.

Shahbaz reiterated his pledge that the APMA would continue to extend free legal aid to the blasphemy accused.

He said the APMA would continue to struggle until the blasphemy laws are repealed.

A person is reduced to the status of a refugee in his country after blasphemy allegations are leveled against him, said Shahbaz implying to the threats the accused and his family receive after slapping of blasphemy charges.

Responding a question, he said the APMA had been providing free legal aid and shelter to the blasphemy-accused since the abuse of the law became rampant in Pakistan.

The APMA, he said, wants to see the controversial laws abolished. He disclosed that he wanted to table a bill in parliament in a bid to either get the laws repealed or see them significantly amended.

He appealed to the Christians across the world to pray for the APMA and Pakistani Christians.

“I thank you for your previous prayers and support. We need your prayers to be able to continue fighting for the rights of the marginalized and the down-trodden Pakistani Christians and other minorities”, he said.

Dubbing Pakistan blasphemy laws as a death warrant in the hands of extremists, Shahbaz called for the repeal of the law, which he said had done more harm than good since their introduction in 1986.

Report from the Christian Telegraph