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

Buddhist Extremists Drive Christians from Village in Bangladesh

Villagers upset with establishment of church break up prayer meetings, invade homes.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, May 3 (CDN) — Four Christian families in southeastern Bangladesh left their village yesterday under mounting pressure by Buddhist extremists to give up their faith in Christ.

Sources told Compass that 20 to 25 Buddhists brandishing sticks and bamboo clubs in Jamindhonpara village, 340 kilometres (211 miles) southeast of Dhaka, began patrolling streets on Friday (April 30) to keep the 11 members of the Lotiban Baptist Church from gathering for their weekly prayer meetings. On Saturday, the Buddhist extremists captured four men and beat one woman who had gathered in a home, threatening to kill them if they did not become Buddhists within 24 hours.

Yesterday, the Buddhist extremists attacked the homes of the Baptists two hours before their 1 p.m. worship service, sources said.

“Just two hours before our church service, a group of people swooped into our houses and drove all of us out so we could not attend the church service,” said one church member who requested anonymity.

The Christians captured Saturday night were released after the extremists, who ripped crosses off the walls of their homes, threatened to kill them if they continued praying and worshipping in the area. After yesterday’s attacks, all Christians in Jamindhonpara fled, taking shelter in another village, source said. Jamindhonpara is located in the Lotiban area, Panchari sub-district of Khagrachari district.

“When they come, they do not listen to us,” said the church member. “They arbitrarily do whatever they like. The situation is indescribable – they hunt us down the same way that one hunts down a mad dog to kill it.”

On Saturday the Buddhist villagers chanted anti-Christian slogans as they formed a procession that snaked through the village.

“They chanted in the demonstration, ‘We will not allow any Christian to live in this area,’ ‘We will not allow them to build a church here,’ and ‘Christians cannot live in Buddhists’ areas,’” said one source. “We did not inform the police or army. Informing them is very dangerous. They could even kill us if we complained about them to police and army or the local administration.”

Local Buddhists were infuriated when Christians established a church in the Lotiban area in December; since then, they have been trying to stop all Christian activities. In the campaign to uproot Christianity, they have tried to expel the pastor of Lotiban Baptist Church by means of various threats, source said.

One of the Christians who fled yesterday, 65-year-old Biraj Kumar Chakma, told Compass that they would not go back to Buddhism whatever pressure might come.

“We left everything,” Chakma said. “We can go through any kind of ordeal, but we will not leave Jesus, even in the face of death. I have not seen in my life a book like the Bible. To stick to it, I left my ancestral house under huge pressure of the Buddhists. They applied much force to give up our faith.”

Chakma said that since his daughter became a Christian, she has not been able to live in the village.

“She is living in a hideout for her safety,” he said.

The Rev. Sushil Jibon Tripura, president of Khagrachari district Baptist Fellowship Church, told Compass that the daily life of the Christian villagers has become intolerable, as they have sacrificed their livelihood for their faith.

“Buddhists are not giving them any work,” Tripura said. “They are not allowed to collect drinking water from local deep tube wells. Nobody mixes with them. They are not allowed to shop in the village market. So the Buddhist villagers have ostracized them.”

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) runs various projects in the area for the development of tribal people, but most the committee members are Buddhists who deprive the Christians of UNDP assistance, he said. The aid includes financial help for ginger cultivation and small cattle farming and cooperative money given through a committee selected from among the villagers.

“When they were Buddhist, they used to get all the aid provided by the UNDP,” Tripura said.  “But when they became Christians, they started facing problems. Recently the committee members took away eight passbooks from Christian villagers given by the UNDP for getting financial help.”

Tripura said he informed the district UNDP office, and officials there said they would look into it.

The United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed group in the hill districts that is also a political party, is active in the area. Tripura said some area Buddhists have mobilized only mid-level activists of the UPDF against the Christians.

“Being an inhabitant of this area, I can say that the high-command of the UPDF is not involved here,” he said.

The tribal people of the area share common ancestors and the same social/cultural milieu, he added.

“We are brothers. But the undercurrent of the hatred is religion,” Tripura said. “We are trying to sit with the Buddhist leaders along with the UPDF leaders for resolving the matter in a peaceful manner.”

The UPDF is one of two main tribal organizations in the hill districts, the other being the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or PCJSS). The PCJSS, formed in 1973, had fought for autonomy in the region for 25 years, leaving nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed. After signing a peace accord in 1997 with the Bangladesh government, the PCJSS laid down arms.

But the UPDF, founded in 1998 and based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, has strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord signed in 1997. Claiming that the agreement failed to address fundamental demands of the indigenous Jumma people, the UPDF has pledged to fight for their full autonomy.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Buddhist Extremists in Bangladesh Beat, Take Christians Captive

Pastor, two others held in pagoda in attempt to force them back to Buddhism.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, April 23 (CDN) — Buddhist members of an armed rebel group and their sympathizers are holding three tribal Christians captive in a pagoda in southeastern Bangladesh after severely beating them in an attempt to force them to return to Buddhism, Christian sources said.

Held captive since April 16 are Pastor Shushil Jibon Talukder, 55; Bimol Kanti Chakma, 50; and Laksmi Bilas Chakma, 40, of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church in Lemuchari village, in Mohalchari sub-district of the mountainous Khagrachari district, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Dhaka. They are to be kept in the pagoda for 15 to 20 days as punishment for having left the Buddhist religion, the sources said.

Local Buddhists are considered powerful as they have ties with the United Peoples Democratic Front (UPDF), an armed group in the hill districts.

After taking the Christians captive on April 16, the sources said, the next day the armed Buddhist extremists forced other Christians of Maddha Lemuchari Baptist Church to demolish their church building by their own hands. The extremists first seized all blankets, Bibles and song books from the church building.

The sources said two UPDF members went to Pastor Talukder’s house at 7 a.m. on April 16, telling him to go to a Buddhist community leader’s house in a nearby village. The Buddhist leader also ordered all members of the Baptist church to come to his house, and about 15 Christians did so.

After a brief dispute, the Buddhists chose the pastor and the two other Christians and began beating them, seriously injuring the pastor. They then took them to a nearby pagoda for Buddhist baptism, shaving their heads and dressing them in saffron robes as part of a conversion ritual.

The sources said Pastor Talukder was bludgeoned nearly to death.

“The pastor was beaten so seriously that he could not walk to the nearby pagoda,” said one source. “Buddhist people took him on a wooden stretcher, which is used for carrying a dead body for burial or cremation.” 

Pastor Talukder was treated in the pagoda with intravenous, hypodermic injections that saved his life, the source said.

The Buddhist extremists were said to be forcing other Christians to undergo Buddhist baptism in the pagoda and to embrace Buddhism.

A source in Khagrachari district told Compass that local UPDF Buddhists had been mounting pressure on the Christians since their church began in the area in early 2007.

“They gave vent to their anger on Christians in a violent outburst by beating the pastor and two others after failing several attempts in the past to stop their evangelical activities,” the source said. “They took them into a pagoda to convert them forcibly to Buddhism.”

In June the Buddhists had threatened to harm Pastor Talukder if he did not give up his Christian faith. The pastor escaped and hid in different churches for two months. Later he came back in the area and began his pastoral and evangelical activities anew.

“They also made threats and gave ultimatums to three or four other churches in the locality to try to force them to come back to Buddhism,” the source said.

‘Social Deviation’

Regional Sub-district Chairman Sona Ratan Chakma told Compass that the “three renegade Buddhists” are being kept in the pagoda for religious indoctrination.

“They became Christian, and they were breaking the rules and customs of the Buddhist society, so elders of the society were angry with them,” Chakma said. “That is why they were sent to a pagoda for 15 to 20 days for their spiritual enlightenment, so that they can come back to their previous place [Buddhism].”

Chakma said the Christians have not been tortured but given punishment proportionate to the gravity of their “social deviation.”

“They were punished so that they can come to their senses,” he said.

Under Siege

The Rev. Leor P. Sarkar, general secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church Fellowship, told Compass that the UPDF’s ultimatum was of grave concern.

“This armed group issued an ultimatum that by April 30 all Christians should come back to Buddhism, otherwise all of them will face the same consequences,” said Sarkar.

Christians are virtually in a state of siege by the UPDF, he said. None of them go to church buildings on the traditional worship days of Friday or Sunday, instead worshipping in their own houses.

Sarkar added that the tribal Christians do not have any political conflict with the UPDF.

“They simply persecute them for their faith in Christ,” he said. “Their only demand to us is to go back to Buddhism.”

The UPDF’s order to give up their faith is a matter of life and death, Sarkar said.

“A ripple of unknown fear gripped the entire Christian community there,” he said. “Everybody took fright from that menacing cruelty. The everyday life of Christians is hampered, beset with threats, hatred and ostracism. So it is a social catastrophe.”

The church leader urgently appealed to local government officials to come to the aid of the kidnapped Christians.

The UPDF is one of two main tribal organizations in the hill districts, the other being the United People’s Party of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samiti, or PCJSS). The PCJSS, formed in 1973, had fought for autonomy in the region for 25 years, leaving nearly 8,500 troops, rebels and civilians killed. After signing a peace accord in 1997 with the Bangladesh government, the PCJSS laid down arms.

But the UPDF, a political party founded in 1998 based in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, has strong and serious reservations against the Chittagong Hill Tracts Accord signed 1997. Claiming that the agreement failed to address fundamental demands of the indigenous Jumma people, the UPDF has pledged to fight for their full autonomy.

Last year the PCJSS demanded that the government ban the UPDF for their terrorist activities in the hill districts.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.

Report from Compass Direct News 


In same district, Muslim land-grabbers murder defender of tribal villagers.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, December 26 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist villagers in southeastern Bangladesh’s Rangamati district last week beat a young father and drove him from his house for converting to Christianity.

The Buddhists in Asambosti, in the Tabalchari area some 300 kilometers (186 miles) southeast of Dhaka, warned Sujan Chakma, 27, not to return to his home after beating him on Dec. 18. Chakma, who converted to Christianity about four months ago, has come back to his home but some nights the likelihood of attacks forces him to remain outside.

He is often unable to provide for his 26-year-old wife, Shefali Chakma, and their 6-year-old son, as area residents opposed to his faith refuse to give him work as a day laborer. Chakma, his wife and son do not eat on days he does not work, he said.

“I am ostracized by my neighbors since I became Christian,” Chakma said. “They put pressure on me to give up my faith, saying otherwise I cannot live in this society. Nothing daunted me, I held firm to my faith in Jesus. On Dec. 18, four of my neighbors came to my home and beat me. They slapped and punched on me. Later they forced me to leave my house. They threatened me that if I come back to my home, I will be in great trouble.”

Neighbors have threatened to beat him again and to send him to jail, he said, and they have pressured him to divorce to his wife.

“At first she did not like my conversion, but she liked my change after accepting Jesus,” he said. “My wife told openly to those neighbors, ‘My husband is a Christian, so I will be a Christian along with my son.’”

A spokesman for Chakma’s church, Parbatta Adivasi Christian Church, said church leaders met with some of the new convert’s neighbors and urged them to accept him.

“We told them that our constitution supports that anyone can accept any religion,” the church spokesman said. “Hindering their practice is unlawful.”

Church leaders said they fear that taking the case to local officials and police would only further anger local Buddhists and harm evangelical activities.

“We do not want to enrage anyone over this incident,” said the spokesman. “But Chakma does not feel secure to stay here. He does not spend the night in his house for security reasons.”


Rights Advocate Murdered

Earlier this year in Rangamati district, Bengali Muslim settlers killed a tribal Christian for defending indigenous peoples from illegal land-grabs.

On Aug. 19 Ladu Moni Chakma, 55, was stabbed repeatedly and his throat was cut at Sajek in Baghaichuri sub-district in Rangamati district after he reported to the Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission how a military commander helped settle Bengali Muslims on area lands.

A pastor of the Bangladesh Baptist Church in the district told Compass that Chakma was killed because he was a Christian who was an outspoken defender of minorities in the area.

“They do not want any Christian to live here,” the pastor said. “They hate Christians more than any other minority religions – it is one of the main reasons to evict and kill Ladu Moni. If people become Christian, many NGOs [Non-Governmental Organizations] will be set up here, and various local and international missionaries will look after them, so that Bengali settlers cannot grab lands illegally.”

Chakma often interceded with the Chittagong Hill Tract Commission on behalf of the indigenous people about their rights and the cruel manner in which Bengali settlers illegally took lands from indigenous people, the pastor added.

Chakma’s widow, Cikonpudi Chakma, also known as Minti Chakma, told reporters in Dhaka on Aug. 28 how the Bengali settlers attacked her family around 10:30 p.m. in Aug. 19.

“Some people were shouting, ‘Open the door! Open the door!’” she said. “Without realizing anything what was going on, three Bengali people broke in our shanty hut.”

She saw knives in their hand and recognized a local man named Mohammed Ali, who earlier in the year had helped settlers seize lands from villagers.

The attackers blindfolded her and dragged her husband out of their home into the rain. They also tried to take her 13-year old daughter, Minu, she said.

“I resisted them taking out my daughter, and I was injured during the tussle with them,” she said. “They hit my forehead with a knife.”

She and her children fled through a backdoor and escaped certain rape and death by jumping down a ravine and rolling to the bottom. Drenched, they took shelter at a nearby home.

“I could not contact my husband that night,” she said. “The next morning, we were returning [to] our home. On the way near Baghaihat, we saw a blood-stained, stock-still body. It was my husband. His body was mutilated and stabbed with sharp knife and machete.”

Police sub-inspector Azizur Rahman Aziz of Baghaichari police station told Compass that his department had arrested three persons in connection with the killing of Chakma.

“We are investigating the case, and after the national election [to be] held on Jan. 29, we will submit the charge sheet,” he said.

Chakma’s widow urged the army-backed interim caretaker government to withdraw settlers from Sajek in Baghaichari and punish the murderers of her husband.


House Burnings

In April, mainly Muslim Bengali settlers aided by the army and a local businessman burned 77 homes in four villages of the tribal people in Sajek, Cikonpudi Chakma told reporters in August.

“In that arson attack, all of our wealth and assets were destroyed,” she said. “Just a week after, we again built a new house. At that time, Mohammad Ali tried to stop us making a new house and demanded that our land was his. The problem started when the Baghaihat zone army commander brought settlers from different areas and took initiative to settle them on our lands.”

Survival International director Stephen Corry said in a statement that the attacks were a “criminal human rights violation.” According to the Survival International, abuses have escalated since the army-backed emergency government came to power in January 2007.

In the Baghaichari area, at least 13 Christian families lived among 77 tribal Buddhist families until the Christians’ homes were burned down in April.

The Chittagong Hill Tracts region comprises three districts: Bandarban, Khagrachuri and Rangamati. The region is surrounded by the Indian states of Tripura on the north and Mizoram on the east, Myanmar on the south and east.  

Report from Compass Direct News