As pressure on Iran mounts, there is little room for quiet diplomacy to free detained Australians


Former Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has offered to help free three detained Australians in Iran, but the attacks on Saudi oil facilities have made the situation vastly more complicated.
Stringer/EPA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Australia’s attempts to secure the release of an Australian national and two with joint UK-Australian citizenship from an Iranian prison have become vastly more complicated following the brazen attacks on Saudi oil facilities over the weekend.

Room for quiet diplomacy has been narrowed while the world comes to terms with a strike at the very heart of global energy security.

At this stage, it is not clear to what extent facilities at Saudi Arabia’s main refinery have been crippled, but initial reports indicate it could be weeks and possibly months before it is brought back into full production.




Read more:
As Australia looks to join a coalition in Iran, the risks are many


Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq refinery processes about half the kingdom’s oil production. According to initial reports, the attack reduced throughput by 5 million barrels a day, or nearly 5% of global production.

‘Hostage diplomacy’

Australia’s former foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has offered to intervene with the Iranian authorities in an attempt to secure the release of the Australian nationals being held in Tehran.

These include Mark Firkin and his UK-Australian girlfriend, Jolie King. The two were arrested earlier this year for the unauthorised flying of a drone near a military facility on the outskirts of Tehran. They have not been charged.

More serious at this stage, however, is the case of Melbourne University Middle East specialist and joint UK-Australia citizen Kylie Moore-Gilbert, who was detained in October 2018. She has been sentenced to 10 years in jail.

University of Melbourne Middle East specialist Kylie Moore-Gilbert.
Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Handout/EPA

Iran has not publicly announced details of charges against her.

The cases of Moore-Gilbert, Firkin and King have, inevitably and unhelpfully, become enmeshed in wider geopolitical tensions in which Iran is fighting back against a US sanctions regime that seeks to cripple its economy.

Iran is being accused of “hostage diplomacy” by resorting to the incarceration of foreign nationals at a time when sanctions are rendering enormous damage to its oil-exporting economy.

This is the background to the diplomatic challenges facing the Australian government in its efforts to free its citizens. These are, by any standards, unpromising circumstances.

While Australian officials insist Canberra’s decision to commit to a US-led mission to protect ships travelling through the Strait of Hormuz is unconnected to the detention of its citizens, Tehran has a history of using individuals ruthlessly as bargaining chips in a wider geopolitical game.




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Infographic: what is the conflict between the US and Iran about and how is Australia now involved?


Hostage taking, or “hostage diplomacy”, has a lengthy tail in the history of the Islamic Republic going back to the November 4, 1979, seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and a siege that ensued for 444 days. Fifty-two Americans were held hostage for more than a year.

More recently, Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian was held in Iran for 544 days before being released with three other Iranian-Americans as part of a prisoner swap in 2016, just before economic sanctions on Iran were lifted under the terms of the nuclear deal.

In recent weeks, Iran has also detained a UK-flagged oil carrier in the Persian Gulf. The Stena Impero remains in Iranian custody, but members of its crew have been let go.

US blaming Iran for Saudi attack

All this was contributing to heightened tensions in the gulf before this weekend’s attacks at the very heart of Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wasted little time in blaming Iran for the attacks. Although Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility for the strikes using drones, Washington is investigating whether cruise missiles were the weapon of choice, fired from either Iraq or Iran itself. A Trump administration official told Reuters,

There’s no doubt that Iran is responsible for this. No matter how you slice it, there’s no escaping it. There’s no other candidate.

Tehran has denied Washington’s accusations.

Saudi Arabia and its Yemeni government allies have been engaged in a vicious conflict with Houthi rebels since 2015. Thousands have been killed, and many more displaced, in what is regarded as the most serious humanitarian crisis in the world today.




Read more:
Yemen: a calamity at the end of the Arabian peninsula


Iran is supporting the Houthis and is widely accused of fuelling the Yemen conflict to weaken Saudi Arabia.

In other words, the gulf and its environs are primed for worsening conflict unless the US and Iran can reach an accommodation that would enable an easing of sanctions.

President Donald Trump has been angling for a face-to-face meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming United Nations General Assembly to address ways in which tensions could be eased.

Attacks on Saudi Arabian oil facilities – and, thus, the global economy – hardly provides a favourable environment for discussions that might, or might not, take place.

Iran has set as a precondition for talks a relaxation of sanctions.

Satellite image of smoke from fires at two major oil installations in Saudi Arabia after the attack over the weekend.
NASA Worldview Handout/EPA

Australia’s limited leverage

Meanwhile, the Australian government finds itself in a situation where it has limited leverage. Trade between Australia and Iran is negligible and holds little promise as long as sanctions remain in place. Canberra’s decision to join a US-led mission in the Middle East means that it is now identified with Washington’s “maximum pressure” approach.

Australia is one of three countries to have signed up to the US initiative. The others are Britain and Bahrain.

In all of this there is another complicating factor, and one that has been little-reported. Tehran was displeased when Australia arrested an Iranian citizen at the request of the US for breaching sanctions.

Iran made repeated representations to secure the release of Negar Ghodskani after her arrest in 2017. She has pleaded guilty to conspiring to facilitate the illegal export of technology from the US and faces a hefty fine and jail time.

This is a tangled web, and hardly likely to become less so.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Seven and Foxtel snag cricket rights, meaning more content but maybe not for free


Marc C-Scott, Victoria University

Under a new broadcast rights deal Cricket Australia will part ways with its long broadcast partner, the Nine Network, after more than 40 years.

The A$1.182 billion deal lasts six years and will commence from this coming summer through to 2024. It will be split between Seven and Foxtel.

As part of a new deal, Seven West Media will pay A$75 million per year to broadcast Big Bash League matches (43 of the 59), all home international tests, including the Ashes (2021-22), some Women’s Big Bash League and International matches, along with award ceremonies including the Allan Border Medal and Belinda Clark Award.




Read more:
Are sport broadcast rights worth the money?


Foxtel will pay A$100 million per year and promises to “show every ball of every over bowled in Australia”, also part of the new deal.

Foxtel will have a dedicated cricket channel. Its coverage will include: simulcasting games from Seven, exclusive rights to men’s one day international and T20 games and 16 Big Bash League matches.

A key for part of the deal for Foxtel has been it securing exclusive digital rights.

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The Nine Network’s partnership with Cricket Australia had a rocky start when the Australian Cricket Board decided to ignore Kerry Packer’s bid in 1976, in favour of the then partner – the ABC. Packer then changed cricket forever with World Series Cricket.

Today’s new media rights deal is another major shift in Australian cricket history. Not only is it the first time Seven will be involved in cricket, the new deal will also allow Australian cricket fans to have access to more cricket coverage than ever.

While there are more hours, there is a definite shift in what will now be shown on free-to-air television.

The negotiations

The current cricket broadcast rights deal with Nine and Ten is a five year A$590 million deal, ending this year. It was an 118% increase on the previous five-year deal.

Cricket Australia desired a similar increase with its new broadcast rights deal, asking a A$1 billion price tag. While it reached the A$1 billion price tag, the deal is for six years rather than five years.

Despite this, the deal is on par with recent increases in the cost of Australian sports media rights. Cricket Australia’s new rights deal matched the percentage increase from the previous deal, (achieved by the AFL) of 67%.

The winners and losers

The rights for Foxtel are a massive win, as Foxtel has lacked Australian summer sport content. By gaining the cricket it now has a full-year calendar of Australian sport. Its exclusive digital rights will allow Foxtel to expand its streaming platforms and potentially increase subscription across both its cable and digital services.

Foxtel’s exclusive digital rights will also dictate what Seven can do with cricket coverage. In recent years Seven has established a free (with ads) and premium service for its major sporting rights, including the tennis and the Olympics. For the cricket it appears that Seven will not be able to incorporate this approach.

Despite this Seven executives see the cricket rights as a better deal in comparison to the tennis rights, which it recently lost to the Nine Network. This is because the cricket media rights give the company over 400 hours of sport, more than double that of the Australian Open.




Read more:
Declining sport viewership shows why we should keep it on free TV


Previously UBS media analyst Eric Choi had stated that Nine lost A$30-40 million a year on the current cricket rights deal. Nine will still have cricket as part of its schedule as it has rights to the next Ashes series from England and the ODI World Cup in the UK in 2019 and the T20 World Cups in Australia in 2020.

The biggest loser from the broadcasters’ perspective is Ten, that has held the rights and gained high ratings from the Big Bash League. It will now need to find programming to fill a very big void in its summer lineup.

Now Cricket Australia has to play a balancing act to make sure cricket is not placed behind a pay-wall and therefore see levels of participation decline, as seen in the UK.

The ConversationIt has to ask itself, will Australians pay to watch cricket on their screens?

Marc C-Scott, Lecturer in Screen Media, Victoria University

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

Check your Google security settings, receive 2GB of free Drive storage


Gigaom

Here’s an easy way to get 2GB of Google Drive storage: In the next week, head to Google’s security checkup page and follow the instructions. On February 28, Google will credit your account with the additional cloud storage space. The security checkup takes less than 5 minutes to complete, and it’s simple — it asks you what your backup email address is, whether any recent account activity is odd, and to review the various apps you’ve given Google account permissions to (there are probably a lot.) Sure, 2GB of additional Google Drive space isn’t a ton (you get 15GB for free), but you probably should review your security settings anyway.

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Australia: The True Land of the Free


The link below is to an article that looks at Australia as the place to be among Irish emigrants. And why not? Australia is the true land of the free.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/17/ireland-australia-land-of-plenty

Pastor, Church Official Shot Dead in Nigeria


Muslim militants of Boko Haram blamed for killings in Borno state.

JOS, Nigeria, June 10 (CDN) — Muslim extremists from the Boko Haram sect on Tuesday (June 7) shot and killed a Church of Christ in Nigeria (COCIN) pastor and his church secretary in Maiduguri, in northeastern Nigeria’s Borno state.

The Rev. David Usman, 45, and church secretary Hamman Andrew were the latest casualties in an upsurge of Islamic militancy that has engulfed northern Nigeria this year, resulting in the destruction of church buildings and the killing and maiming of Christians.

The Rev. Titus Dama Pona, pastor with the Evangelical Church Winning All (ECWA) in Maiduguri, told Compass that Pastor Usman was shot and killed by the members of the Boko Haram near an area of Maiduguri called the Railway Quarters, where the slain pastor’s church is located.

Pona said Christians in Maiduguri have become full of dread over the violence of Boko Haram, which seeks to impose sharia (Islamic law) on northern Nigeria.

“Christians have become the targets of these Muslim militants – we no longer feel free moving around the city, and most churches no longer carry out worship service for fear of becoming targets of these unprovoked attacks,” Pona said.

Officials at COCIN’s national headquarters in Jos, Plateau state, confirmed the killing of Pastor Usman. The Rev. Logan Gongchi of a COCIN congregation in Kerang, Jos, told Compass that area Christians were shocked at the news.

Gongchi said he attended Gindiri Theological College with Pastor Usman beginning in August 2003, and that both of them were ordained into pastoral ministry on Nov. 27, 2009.

“We knew him to be very gentle, an introvert, who was always silent in the class and only spoke while answering questions from our teachers,” Gongchi said. “He had a simple lifestyle and was easygoing with other students. He was very accommodating and ready at all times to withstand life’s pressures – this is in addition to being very jovial.”

Gongchi described Usman as “a pastor to the core because of his humility. I remember he once told me that he was not used to working with peasant farmers’ working tools, like the hoe. But with time he adapted to the reality of working with these tools on the farm in the school.”

Pastor Usman was excellent at counseling Christians and others while they were at the COCIN theological college, Gongchi said, adding that the pastor greatly encouraged him when he was suffering a long illness from 2005 to 2007.

“His encouraging words kept my faith alive, and the Lord saw me overcoming my ill health,” he said. “So when I heard the news about his murder, I cried.”

 

Motives

The late pastor had once complained about the activities of Boko Haram, saying that unless the Nigerian government faced up to the challenge of its attacks, the extremist group would consume the lives of innocent persons, according to Gongchi.

“Pastor Usman once commented on the activities of the Boko Haram, which he said has undermined the church not only in Maiduguri, but in Borno state,” Gongchi said. “At the time, he urged us to pray for them, as they did not know how the problem will end.”

Gongchi advised the Nigerian government to find a lasting solution to Boko Haram’s violence, which has also claimed the lives of moderate Muslim leaders and police.

The Railway Quarters area in Maiduguri housed the seat of Boko Haram until 2009, when Nigerian security agencies and the military demolished its headquarters and captured and killed the sect’s leader, Mohammed Yusuf, and some of his followers.

The killing of Pastor Usman marked the second attack on his church premises by the Muslim militants. The first attack came on July 29, 2009, when Boko Haram militants burned the church building and killed some members of his congregation.

On Monday (June 6), the militants had bombed the St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, along with other areas in Maiduguri, killing three people. In all, 14 people were killed in three explosions at the church and police stations, and authorities have arrested 14 people.

The Boko Haram name is interpreted figuratively as “against Western education,” but some say it can also refer to the forbidding of the Judeo-Christian faith. They say the word “Boko” is a corruption in Hausa language for the English word “Book,” referring to the Islamic scripture’s description of Jews and Christians as “people of the Book,” while “Haram” is a Hausa word derived from Arabic meaning, “forbidding.”

Boko Haram leaders have openly declared that they want to establish an Islamic theocratic state in Nigeria, and they reject democratic institutions, which they associate with Christianity. Their bombings and suspected involvement in April’s post-election violence in Nigeria were aimed at stifling democracy, which they see as a system of government built on the foundation of Christian scripture.

Christians as well as Muslims suffered many casualties after supporters of Muslim presidential candidate Muhammudu Buhari lost the April 16 federal election to Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian. Primarily Muslim rioters claimed vote fraud, although international observers praised the polls as the fairest since 1999.

Nigeria’s population of more than 158.2 million is almost evenly divided between Christians, who make up 51.3 percent of the population and live mainly in the south, and Muslims, who account for 45 percent of the population and live mainly in the north. The percentages may be less, however, as those practicing indigenous religions may be as high as 10 percent of the total population, according to Operation World.

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

 

Judge Exonerates Jailed Evangelist in Bangladesh


Judge rules Christian did not ‘create chaos’ by distributing literature near Islamic event.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, March 31 (CDN) — A judge this week exonerated a Christian sentenced to one year in prison for selling and distributing Christian literature near a major Muslim gathering north of this capital city, his lawyer said.

After reviewing an appeal of the case of 25-year-old Biplob Marandi, the magistrate in Gazipur district court on Tuesday (March 29) cleared the tribal Christian of the charge against him and ordered him to be released, attorney Lensen Swapon Gomes told Compass. Marandi was selling Christian books and other literature when he was arrested near the massive Bishwa Ijtema (World Muslim Congregation) on the banks of the Turag River near Tongi town on Jan. 21.

On Feb. 28 he was sentenced for “creating chaos at a religious gathering” by selling and distributing the Christian literature.

“Some fundamentalist Muslims became very angry with him for selling the Christian books near a Muslim gathering,” Gomes said, “so they harassed him by handing over to the mobile court. His release proves that he was innocent and that he did not create any trouble at the Muslim gathering.”

The judge reviewing the appeal ruled that Marandi proved in court that he sells books, primarily Christian literature, for his livelihood.

“I am delirious with joy, and it is impossible to say how happy I am,” said his brother, the Rev. Sailence Marandi, a pastor at Church of Nazarene International in northern Bangladesh’s Thakurgaon district. “I also thank all those who have prayed for my brother to be released.”

After processing the paperwork for Marandi’s release from Gazipur district jail, authorities were expected to free him by the end of this week, according to his lawyer.

“My brother is an innocent man, and his unconditional release proved the victory of truth,” Pastor Marandi said. “I am even more delighted because my brother’s release proves that he was very innocent and polite.”

The pastor had said his brother did not get the opportunity to defend himself at his original trial.

Marandi’s attorney on appeal argued that his religious activities were protected by the religious freedom provisions of the country’s constitution. The Bangladeshi constitution provides the right for anyone to propagate their religion subject to law, but authorities and communities often objected to efforts to convert people from Islam, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2010 International Religious Freedom report.

Every year several million male Muslims – women are not allowed – attend the Bishwa Ijtema event to pray and listen to Islamic scholars from around the world. Some 9,000 foreigners from 108 countries reportedly attended the event, though most of the worshippers are rural Bangladeshis. About 15,000 security personnel were deployed to maintain order.

Bangladeshi Muslims equate the annual event with the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. This year the Bangladesh event was held in two phases, Jan. 21-23 and Jan. 28-30.

At the same event in 2009, Muslim pilgrims beat and threatened to kill another Bible school student as he distributed Christian literature. A patrolling Rapid Action Battalion elite force rescued Rajen Murmo, then 20, a student at Believers’ Church Bible College, on Feb. 1, 2009.

Bangladesh is the world’s third-largest Muslim-majority nation, with Muslims making up 89 percent of its population of 164.4 million, according to Operation World. Christians are less than 1 percent of the total, and Hindus 9 percent.

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

Pakistani Muslim Tortures, Accuses Christian Who Refused Slavery


Land owner falsely charges young man with illicit sex, calls villagers to beat, burn him.

SARGODHA, Pakistan, October 29 (CDN) — A Muslim land owner in Pakistan this month subjected a 25-year-old Christian to burns and a series of humiliations, including falsely charging him with having sex with his own niece, because the Christian refused to work for him without pay.

Fayaz Masih is in jail with burns on his body after No. 115 Chitraan Wala village head Zafar Iqbal Ghuman and other villagers punished Masih for refusing to work as a slave in his fields, said the Rev. Yaqub Masih, a Pentecostal evangelist. The village is located in Nankana Sahib district, Punjab Province.

Sources said neither Fayaz Masih nor his family had taken any loans from Ghuman, and that they had no obligations to work off any debt for Ghuman as bonded laborers.

Yaqub Masih said the young man’s refusal to work in Ghuman’s fields infuriated the Muslim, who was accustomed to forcing Christians into slavery. He said Ghuman considered Masih’s refusal an act of disobedience by a “choohra,” the pejorative word for Christians in Pakistan.

On Oct. 3 Ghuman and 11 of his men abducted Masih from his home at gun-point and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Yaqub Masih and Yousaf Gill, both of nearby village No. 118 Chour Muslim. Gill is a former councilor of Union Council No. 30, and Yaqub Masih is an ordained pastor waiting for his denomination to assign him a church.

Fayaz Masih’s family members told Yaqub Masih that Ghuman was carrying a pistol, and that the 11 other men were brandishing rifles or carrying clubs, axes and bamboo sticks. They began beating Masih as they carried him away, calling him a choohra, Yaqub Masih said.   

Gill said that Ghuman’s farmhands tied Fayaz Masih’s hands and legs and asked him once more if he would work in Ghuman’s fields. When he again refused, Gill said, Ghuman summoned four barbers; three ran away, but he forced one, Muhammad Pervaiz, to shave Masih’s head, eyebrows, half of his mustache and half of his beard.

After they had rubbed charcoal on Masih’s face, Ghuman then announced that Masih had had relations with Masih’s 18-year-old niece, Sumeera, and called for everyone in the village to punish him. He and his men placed Masih on a frail, one-eyed donkey, Yaqub Masih and Gill said, and a mob of Muslim men and children surrounded him – beating tins, dancing and singing door-to-door while shouting anti-Christian slogans, yelling obscenities at him and other Christians, and encouraging villagers to beat him with their shoes and fill his mouth with human waste, Yaqub Masih said.

Some threw kerosene on Masih and alternately set him on fire and extinguished the flames, Gill said. He added that Muslims made a garland of old shoes from a pile of garbage and put it around Masih’s neck.

Yaqub Masih said the abuse became unbearable for the young man, and he collapsed and fell off the donkey.  

 

Police Ignore Court

Masih’s sister, Seema Bibi, told Compass that the accusation that Masih had had sex with her daughter Sumeera was utterly false. She said Ghuman made the allegation only to vent his fury at Masih for refusing to work for him.

Seema Bibi said that Ghuman told her daughter at gun-point to testify against Masih in court on Oct. 4. Sumeera surprised the Muslim land owner, however, saying under oath that Masih was innocent and that Ghuman had tried to force her to testify against her uncle. A judge ruled that Sumeera had not had illicit relations with Masih, and that therefore she was free to go home.

Her mother told Compass, however, that since then Ghuman has been issuing daily death threats to her family.

After Masih collapsed from the abuse, Yaqub Masih and Gill called local police. Police did not arrive until three hours later, at 3:30 p.m., they said, led by Deputy Superintendent of Police Shoiab Ahmed Kamboh and Inspector Muhammad Yaqub.

“They rebuked the Muslim villagers that they could have killed this Christian youth, and they told them to give him a bath at once and change his clothes, in order to reduce the evidence against them,” Gill said.

Family members of Masih said Kamboh and Inspector Yaqub arrested some of the leading figures within the mob, but soon thereafter they received a call to release every Muslim.

“Instead of taking the Muslim men into custody, they detained my brother, and he was taken to the police station,” Seema Bibi said.  

On Oct. 4 police sent Masih to District Headquarters Hospital Nankana Sahib for examination, where Dr. Naseer Ahmed directed Dr. Muhammad Shakeel to mention in the medical report how severely Ghuman and his farmhands had beaten him, Gill said. He said the medical report also stated that Masih had sustained burns and that his head, mustache, eyebrows and beard were shaved.

In spite of the court ruling that Masih had not had sex with his niece, police were coerced into registering a false charge of adultery under Article 376 of the Islamic statutes of the Pakistan Penal Code, First Information Report No. 361/10, at the Sangla Hill police station.

At press time Masih remained in Shiekhupura District Jail, said Gill. Gill also has received death threats from Ghuman, he said.

The 11 men who along with Ghuman abducted Masih and brought him to Ghuman’s farmhouse, according to Masih’s family, were Mehdi Hussain Shah and Maqsood Shah, armed with rifles; Muhammad Amin, Rana Saeed, Muhammad Osama and four others unidentified, all of them brandishing clubs; Muhammad Waqas, with an axe; and Ali Raza, bearing a bamboo stick and a club.

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