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


Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).


Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.


Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.


Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.


Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News