Christians Fear Civilian Casualties in Burma

Junta targets ethnic minority states as civil war looms.

CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) — Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.

“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.

Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.

Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.

There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.

The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.

“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”

Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.

“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”

David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”

The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.



To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.

In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.

Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.

“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.

One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”

Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.

Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.


Kachin State

“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).

The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.

In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.

The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”

Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”

KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.

Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.

“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”


Emulate Sri Lanka?

Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.

But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”

“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.

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, 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.

Report from Compass Direct News

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