A Look at Religious Persecution in Burma

Recently released reports detail the persecution of Christians in Burma and the systematic oppression of ethnicity and descent
( [email protected] ) Aug 17, 2004 07:08 PM EDT

Christians in Burma amongst the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin ethnic national groups have found that they have been targeted through practices such as destruction of churches, forcible conversions, and the use of forced labor, according to a Norway-based religious rights agency. In a recent survey analysis of the religious freedom situation in the nation of Burma, Forum 18 reported on religious freedom violations against Christians as part of the military regime’s systematic oppression of ethnicity and descent.

Christians and other religious bodies suffer persecution in varying degrees in Burma, but the situation is complex, reported Forum 18. Because of the regime’s hostility to human rights and freedom of information, it is often difficult to obtain accurate, objective, and current information on religious freedom violations. But the news agency says that it is clear that religious persecution is a component of a wider, systematic oppression of ethnicity and descent. “There is undoubtedly an anti-Christian and anti-Muslim element,” the agency reported. “And the regime often cloaks itself in the language and imagery of Buddhism, but when Buddhists oppose it, the regime has no hesitation in detaining Buddhist monks or disrupting the activities of monastery.

However, Christians among the ethnic national groups, such as the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin, have found that their religious identity has in itself become a target. According to sources, when the Burma Army attacks a Karen village that has a church and a Buddhist temple, soldiers often burn down the church, but do not damage the temple. A new report published this year by the Chin Human Rights Organization, entitled ‘Religious Persecution: A Campaign of Ethnocide Against Chin Christians in Burma,’ claims that Burma’s ruling military regime is systematically persecuting Chin Christians.

Since General Ne Win seized power in a coup in 1962, Burma has been ruled by successive military regimes. While Christians and Muslims among the ethnic national groups suffer the most intense persecution, the regime sometimes cracks down on religious activities in Burma’s major cities as well. In 2001, more than 80 churches around the capital Rangoon were reportedly closed down, and an order was issued banning Christian meetings in buildings less than a hundred years. However, despite being expelled by Ne Win in 1962, the current regime appears to allow Western missionaries to operate again in Rangoon, teaching and evangelizing in churches and seminaries, provided they keep a low profile, and are apolitical.

Meanwhile in Chin State, northwest Burma on the Indian border, where the population is 90 percent Christian, the people have over the years built crosses on mountain tops as symbols of their faith and identity. In recent years, however, the Burma Army has reportedly forced villagers to tear down crosses and, in some cases, build Buddhist pagodas in their place. According to a report by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in March, after a visit to the India-Burma border, the authorities have destroyed all crosses in Chin State. Also, Christians have sometimes been forced to contribute financially to the construction of Buddhist pagodas.

According to sources, Chin Christian children have also been lured away from their families with the offer of a good education. But instead, the authorities place children, some as young as 11, in a Buddhist monastery, where they are forced to become novice monks.

In addition, the printing of Bibles in Chin State is reportedly forbidden. In 2000, it was reported that 16,000 Bibles were seized and burned. As a result, the Chin smuggle Bibles printed in India.

Christians in Chin State are also required to obtain a permit for any gathering of more than five people, other than a Sunday service. Bible study groups or conferences of any type require permits from the Religious Affairs Ministry, the police, the township authority, and the block-level authority. Similarly, any type of construction or renovation for religious purposes requires a permit. However, since 1994, all applications for permission for the construction of new church buildings have been denied.

In a recent incident, Baptist churches in Chin State organized a conference involving 49 churches. Although the organizers applied for permission two months in advance and paid the fee, a week before the event, the local commander denied permission to build a structure in which to hold the conference. The churches appealed but to no avail. They were informed that any gathering of over seven people would not be permitted, and any nighttime worship service would be prohibited. A senior pastor who had acted as a mediator between the SPDC and the armed resistance, the Chin National Front, appealed to the head of military intelligence, and two days before the conference was due to start, permission was given for the conference to go ahead, however, there was no time to build the necessary facility.

Forum 18 reported that ultimately, the regime has little religious belief, and is intent simply in holding on to power. Its mentality is summed up by the words of a Burma Army battalion commander, speaking after he had attacked a village: “I do not believe in any religion. My religion is the trigger of my gun.”

[Source: Forum 18]