Despite Reform, Christians Remain Under Military Attack in Burma

Dha Der Church in Burma
Dha Der Church in Burma, seen here in October 2010, was rebuilt 18 months later (World Watch Monitor)

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Christians around the world who’ve been praying for Burma have been warned against ‘euphoria’ over reform, while Christian and Muslim minorities remain under attack by the military.

Sunday marked the 16th anniversary of the Global Day of Prayer for Burma, which celebrated some progress toward reform, but warned that grave issues remained, especially the continuing attacks against the Kachin and Rohingya ethnic and religious minorities. 

The Day of Prayer followed a new report claiming government troops have destroyed 66 churches in Kachin State in the north of Burma, on the border with China and India. The report, by the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT), also claimed the military are using rape as a weapon of war. It said the Burma army had set fire to churches after the collapse of the ceasefire in Kachin State in 2011. A recent report by Amnesty International has condemned air strikes against the mainly Christian Kachin.

Hkanhpa Sadan, the joint secretary of the Kachin National Organisation (KNO), told the prayer event in London that up to 100,000 Kachin have been driven from their homes and 75,000 had sought shelter in temporary camps along the China border. He criticized the U.N. for failing to bring in relief aid and said: "The people are living on rice and salt—that is the only nutrition they can get. The U.N. is not pushing hard enough to bring in humanitarian aid."

He described the attacks as religious persecution: "When the Burma army come to the villages, they torch the churches but don’t touch the pagodas." He told World Watch Monitor: "They want us to be Burman, to be Buddhist, and to follow their orders."

The mainly Christian Kachin are seeking autonomy within Burma, and say they are attacked for being both separatist and Christian.

Hkanhpa Sadan was skeptical about the claim that widespread reform is taking place in Burma. "We don’t see this as genuine. In Kachin State we haven’t seen reform at all. All the reforms seem to be centred on Rangoon and Mandalay, and aimed at the Burman [tribal] majority."

He went on to accuse President Thein Sein of "lying" over claims that he has ordered a ceasefire in Kachin State.

"He is the head of state and head of the army," Sadan explained. "He is the only Burmese leader ever to use fighter jets against the Kachin. Rather than rolling out the red carpet for him, the international community should send him to The Hague to be indicted for crimes against humanity. He is above the law and using the promise of reform just to get his authoritarian democracy. It is all about power. I pray that he will change his mind and have a genuine desire for peace."

Ben Rogers, chairing the Global Day of Prayer in London on behalf of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), was also skeptical about Thein Sein’s ability to deliver a ceasefire. "Either he is not telling the truth about calling for a ceasefire in Kachin state," he told World Watch Monitor, "or other powers [in the army or the regime] are overruling him."

Rogers believed the continued fighting could not be put down to a rogue element in the army beyond presidential control. "For air power to be used, that has to be authorized at a high level."

Amnesty International has confirmed three civilians were killed in an air strike in January against the Kachin town of Laiza, on the border with China. Laiza is the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army. Burma has acknowledged carrying out the air strikes, but says they were necessary to prevent rebels cutting off military supply routes.

Amnesty has criticized the Kachin for positioning potential military targets near civilian areas but has accused the army of committing "multiple human rights violations against Kachin civilians, including extrajudicial executions, torture and other ill-treatment, arbitrary detention, forced labor and sexual violence."

British parliamentarian Baroness Cox, the founder of the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust (HART), has just returned from Kachin State. She told the BBC on Friday: "We saw the Burmese army attacking civilians. There are 156 battalions of Burmese army in that one state. They are bombing civilians and committing atrocities. It is heartbreak land. It is terror." Baroness Cox confirmed that troops were raping civilians.

Another of Burma’s largely Christian groups, the Chin, is also facing persecution. Ben Rogers said: "The regime is continuing to use military-run Buddhist monastic schools, where they take Chin children from Christian families, with the promise of an education, but force them to convert and become novice Buddhist monks. This is the practice of the regime, not of ordinary Buddhists," he added. "Until there is true religious freedom for all there is no freedom in Burma."

But the most extreme religious persecution in Burma is taking place against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state, the Day of Prayer was told.

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