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 


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