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MYANMAR: ‘A living hell’: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

‘A living hell’: Churches, clergy targeted by Myanmar military

Rights groups say Christians, a minority in the mainly Buddhist country, are being swept up in the military crackdown on resistance.

By Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbein

 

ALJAZEERA (14.10.2021) – https://bit.ly/3pi1WHD – Last month, Myanmar soldiers gunned down Cung Biak Hum, a 31-year-old Baptist pastor, while he rushed to help put out a fire caused by military shelling. As his town of Thantlang in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State went up in flames, soldiers sawed off the pastor’s finger and stole his wedding ring.

 

“The killing of Cung Biak Hum and mutilation of his finger demonstrate the extent of disrespect and brutality with which [Myanmar military] soldiers are conducting themselves in their ongoing war against the people,” Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy director of the Chin Human Rights Organisation, told Al Jazeera.

 

The September 19 incident is one of at least 20 cases documented by human rights groups and the media, in which Christian churches, church leaders and volunteers have been targeted or caught in the crossfire of military attacks since a February 1 coup.

The incidents include shelling churches, detaining pastors, and using churches as military bases.

 

“Churches are now empty and deserted,” said a Catholic church leader in Kayah State who, like several others interviewed for this article, spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns of reprisals. “Fear is instilled in the hearts of people. Even churches are not safe from attacks,” he said.

 

Military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him for comment on the incidents mentioned in this report, as his phone was switched off.

 

In May, the military justified its attacks on churches in Kayah, including a Catholic church where artillery fire killed four people, by claiming “local rebels” were hiding there, Radio Free Asia reported.

 

According to 2014 census figures, which surveyed some 50 million people and excluded roughly 1 million mostly Muslim Rohingya, Myanmar’s population is nearly 90 percent Buddhist.

 

The predominantly Buddhist ethnic Bamar majority dominates the military and politics, and the military has long promoted Buddhist nationalist organisations. The military-drafted 2008 constitution also recognises the “special position of Buddhism as the faith possessed by the great majority of the citizens”.

 

Christians, meanwhile, make up just six percent of Myanmar’s population and are mostly from ethnic minorities concentrated along the country’s borders, where their experiences of marginalisation and forced assimilation have contributed to decades-long armed struggles for self-determination.

 

According to Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia at the human rights organisation Christian Solidarity Worldwide and author of three books on Myanmar, the military has always had a “deep-seated hostility” towards non-Buddhist religious minorities.

 

“[The military] have often used religion as a tool of repression. They have sowed religious nationalism, and that has been the case for decades,” he said, adding that since the coup, these patterns have only intensified. “Christians have certainly been targeted, both for their religion and their ethnicity,” he told Al Jazeera.

 

Chin, Kayah and Kachin State have the country’s largest concentration of Christians, according to the census.

 

Some 85 percent of the 478,000 residents of Chin State, located on Myanmar’s northwestern border with India, identified as Christian, while in Kayah, which borders Thailand in Myanmar’s southeast, 46 percent of its 286,000 people said they were Christian.

 

In Kachin State, in Myanmar’s far north on the border with China, 34 percent of 1.6 million people surveyed identified as Christian; the census excluded about 46,000 people living in areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation.

 

“[The central government] set the mark of their ownership on Kachin lands, building their pagodas wherever there is a hill,” said Layang Seng Ja, head of research and publications and a professor at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary. “Our beautiful hills, valleys, plains and mountains have the symbols of their domination.”

 

Crackdown on resistance

 

Military violence towards Christians since the coup comes amid a broader crackdown on the resistance movement which has swept the country.

 

Security forces have killed more than 1,100 unarmed civilians, according to rights groups, mostly during street demonstrations, and as people have increasingly taken up arms, the military has indiscriminately attacked entire civilian populations, following a ‘four cuts’ strategy it has applied for decades in ethnic areas.

 

In Kayah and southern Shan State, more than 100,000 people have fled their homes since an intense military offensive began in May.

 

At least five churches have been damaged in artillery fire, including the Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic church in Kayah’s Loikaw township where four civilians were killed.

 

About 300 people from the township’s South Kayantharyar village sought shelter in the church grounds on May 22, hiding in two cathedrals and the priests’ residence. “It seemed like the war was closing in on us, and we thought that the church would be safe,” said Khu Reh, a farmer. Al Jazeera has used a pseudonym for the 56-year-old.

 

The villagers raised white flags around the compound’s perimeter as a gesture of peace. They also disposed of kitchen knives and other items that could be mistaken for weapons, said Khu Reh.

 

According to his account, soldiers arrived the next day, searching the church grounds and questioning the villagers. “They warned us not to leave the church, and said that if they saw anyone coming out, they would shoot,” he said.

 

That night, he and a handful of villagers stood guard at the church gates.

 

One of them, he said, was shot in the leg at about 9pm local time (14:30 GMT). Artillery fire began falling on the village and two nearby villages at 1am (18:30 GMT), and when it stopped two hours later, Khu Reh and the other guards opened the doors to the new cathedral to a billow of smoke. Three elderly women and an elderly man lay dead and eight people were injured.

 

When Khu Reh returned the next day, he found the church ransacked and looted. “After that, whenever [soldiers] came to our village, they always stationed at our church,” said Khu Reh, who along with others from his village has since been living in a displacement camp.

 

The Catholic church leader interviewed by Al Jazeera said that soldiers have also stationed themselves at the Doumyalay Parish Church in Loikaw township, and on May 29 entered the compound of St. Peter’s seminary – also in Loikaw township – where 1,300 people had taken shelter, and shot a volunteer dead.

 

On Wednesday, a Catholic church in Kayah State’s Hpruso township was damaged by artillery fire; the clashes are ongoing, said the Catholic church leader.

 

He added that soldiers have confiscated medicine and food supplies which church groups had collected for displaced people, following patterns of aid obstruction which media and rights groups have documented across the country.

 

Although he risks his life to do so, the church leader says he remains committed to protecting and helping civilians in need.

 

“Humanitarian concern, human dignity and value, and compassionate hearts make us see [all civilians] as our brothers and sisters in need,” he said. “We must be with them in their fear and protect them. The suffering of our people is our suffering. The cries of our people are our pain.”

 

Military suspicions

In Chin State, where nearly 12,000 people remain displaced by military attacks that began when armed resistance groups emerged in April, the Chin Human Rights Organisation has collected reports of three churches which were occupied by soldiers and four which were hit by artillery fire, as well as the arbitrary detention of a pastor from Matupi township, who has been in custody without charge since August 23.

 

In August, soldiers passed through the Taal Baptist Church in Falam township and left Bibles and hymn books strewn outside the church amid piles of rubbish, according to photos seen by Al Jazeera.

 

And on October 3, local media outlet Zalen reported that soldiers entered a Catholic church in Magway region where displaced villagers from Mindat township had taken shelter. Soldiers interrogated them and checked their phones for evidence of ties to armed resistance, according to the report. Zalen also reported on Wednesday that soldiers had set a church in Chin State’s Falam township on fire as it burned and looted a small village. Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify these reports.

 

A representative from the Chin Baptist Convention, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Al Jazeera that soldiers also destroyed Bibles while occupying the Grace Baptist Church in Mindat township in August. “The coup has affected our ability to safely and freely worship,” he said. “People worry that they will be attacked or bombed while they are praying.”

 

The violence, arrests and other forms of persecution which Christian churches across Myanmar have faced since the coup were already being acutely felt in the country’s far north, where a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the military collapsed in 2011.

 

In 2015, two volunteer teachers from the Kachin Baptist Convention were raped and murdered near a military encampment in northern Shan State, in a case which was never brought to justice.

 

And in 2017, two Baptist leaders were jailed on charges of defamation and supporting the KIO after they took journalists to a church which had been damaged by military airstrikes.

 

The military also threatened defamation charges against Kachin Baptist Convention president Hkalam Samson in 2019, after he told Donald Trump during a religious freedom event at the Oval Office that Christians in Myanmar had been “oppressed and tortured” by the military and lacked religious freedom.

 

Kachin churches have been integral in the humanitarian response to armed conflict, but have faced ongoing scrutiny for their humanitarian work, especially in KIO-controlled areas, where international aid access has effectively been blocked since 2016.

In 2018, the Kachin Baptist Convention had to temporarily suspend humanitarian operations in these areas after the military accused it of supporting the KIO because of its work.

 

Since the coup, fighting has increased between the KIO and military, and at least 14,000 people have been displaced, in addition to more than 100,000, who were already living in camps.

 

A Catholic church leader in Bhamo district, which has seen some of the most intense fighting, told Al Jazeera that the church’s humanitarian volunteers are regularly stopped at checkpoints, while in May, a Catholic priest was detained for four days while travelling from Bhamo to the state capital.

 

“[Soldiers] doubt us when we transport humanitarian aid, and we cannot transport it to displaced people when they need it,” said the church leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

 

It is among numerous ways that Kachin churches have been caught up in the post-coup crisis.

 

On March 8, a Catholic nun in the Kachin State capital knelt in front of police and soldiers and begged them to show mercy towards a group of protesters who had gathered in front of her church; she also served as a first responder that day when security forces opened fire, killing two.

 

In March and April, four Kachin churches were raided. At one of them, a Baptist church in northern Shan State, 30 soldiers entered, firing gunshots and detaining 10 people, including four ministers, for two days, according to local media reports.

 

The Kachin Theological College and Seminary in the state capital was also raided on March 13. According to Layang Seng Ja, a convoy of 15 military vehicles surrounded the campus and soldiers searched the grounds and dormitories. The school has since sent its students home, she said.

 

“If [soldiers] see people gathering, they will think somehow they are planning to do an uprising,” said the professor at the college, who herself fled to the KIO headquarters due to fear of arrest. “I want to go back to the classroom and teach my students about Jesus’ peace and justice, love and compassion, but I cannot do so now,” she added.

 

The military has also kept a close watch on Kachins’ prayer services. Three pastors in the state’s Nawngmun township have been in detention since June 14, under charges of incitement for allegedly using the phrase “ending military dictatorship” during a prayer for peace.

 

And on August 26, plainclothes police searched the Kachin Baptist Convention headquarters, alleging that the church’s secretary signed off on a COVID-19 prayer statement which used the phrase “terrorist junta”; The church claims the phrase was mistranslated from Kachin to Burmese.

 

“[The military] check the contents of our prayers,” said Seng Ja. “We cannot practice freedom of religion in our own land; we cannot talk about peace [or] justice.”

 

“We are in a living hell caused by this military junta and their mentality,” she added.

 

HRWF Comment

 

See the European Parliament Joint Motion for a Resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar, including the situation of religious and ethnic groups

https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/RC-9-2021-0502_EN.html

 

See the statements of several MEPs during the debates: Maria Arena, Adam Bielan, Dita Charanzová, Miguel Urban Crespo, Anna Fotyga, Jytte Guteland, Bernard Guetta, Svenja Hahn, Heidi Hautala, Krszysztof Hetman, Evin Incir, Assita Kanko, Sean Kelly, Stella Kyriakides, Iszabela-Helena Kloc, Adam Kosa, Elizbieta Kruk, Urmas Paet, Bert-Jan Ruissen, Silvia Sardone, Lorant Vincze (in bolt MEPs mentioning the situation of Christians)

https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/CRE-9-2021-10-07-ITM-006-01_NL.html

 

Photo : Churches, which have provided refuge to people fleeing violence, are being caught up in the Myanmar military’s crackdown on all forms of resistance to its rule. Christians in Chin State say these hymn books were thrown out by soldiers who ransacked their church in August [Supplied]

 





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MYANMAR: In the shadow of the Rohingya’s genocide, the forgotten Christians

In the shadow of the Rohingya’s genocide, the Christian minorities in Myanmar are forgotten

Report about the in-person and live streamed conference held on 28 September at the European Parliament

By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers

 

HRWF (30.09.2021) – In the shadow of the genocide targeting Rohingya Muslims for years, the fate of other ethno-religious groups in Myanmar has been largely unreported although they are also the victims of the military junta’s racist nationalism. This is the conclusion of the in-person and live streamed conference held on 28 September at the European Parliament by MEP Bert-Jan Ruissen with his colleagues from the Intergroup of Freedom of Religion or Belief, MEP Michaela Sojdrova and Ladislav Ilcic.

 

The first speaker, Alex Aung Khant, an election candidate in 2019 and a Buddhist, exposed the atrocities committed by the junta against all forms of opposition since their coup d’état on 1 February 2021. Their power is based on two pillars, he said: the military and money generated by the misuse of mineral resources. A third pillar which is perceived as a threat and escapes their control consists of Buddhist monks opposed to their dictatorship, and ethno-religious groups that have been alienated throughout the last decades whoever was in power. Rohingya Muslims are not considered a historical component of Myanmar identity and have been ostracized for decades, Alex Aung Khant insisted, and similarly, Christian ethnic groups like the Kachin, the Chin and the Karen are also denied full citizenship. They are viewed by their rulers as ‘guests’ in a country that is said not to be theirs because they are not Buddhists, which ‘justifies’ any repression by the police and military forces. They do not have the same ID card as the Buddhist Burmese and are treated as second-class citizens. At school, children from minority ethno-religious groups have to attend the compulsory classes of Buddhist religion.

 

Benedict Rodgers, a well-known human rights activist and CSW’s (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) analyst for East Asia, exposed various forms of long-standing anti-Christian persecutions in Myanmar.

 

In recent years, violations of FoRB and other human rights have also been observed in several states in northern Myanmar, notably in Kachin and northern Shan states, perpetrated against the majority Christian Kachin and Chin ethnic groups. Widespread conflict between the Myanmar Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has led to thousands of civilian deaths, and the displacement of over 120,000 people. In September 2018 the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar declared that the violations documented in Kachin and Shan states amounted to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

 

More recently, on 24 May 2021, four civilians were killed and eight more were injured in an attack by the Myanmar/Burma army on a Catholic church in Kayan Thar Yar village in Kayah (Karenni) State. According to a statement by the Ministry of International Cooperation of the National Unity Government of Myanmar, military forces fired a heavy artillery shell at the Catholic church, where elderly people and children were reportedly hiding after fleeing their homes following earlier attacks on their village.

 

The shelling took place just two days after military forces raided a Karen Baptist Church in Insein, Yangon, on 22 May. The church pastor and two other young men were violently beaten and detained, the church was ransacked and its property destroyed. A few days earlier, on 13 May, Father Columban Labang Lar Di of the Banmaw Diocese in Kachin State was arrested by military forces as he was travelling from Banmaw to Myitkyina. He was released on 17 May after repeated appeals from church leaders and members of the international community.

 

Dr Adina Portaru, senior counsel at ADF International, addressed the issue of EU’s possible response to the repression dramatically targeting ethno-religious groups and impeding the Christians’ individual and collective practice of their religion. She stressed that the adoption of the EU Guidelines on Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) in 2013 as well as the creation of an EU Special Envoy on FoRB were quite positive and promising steps but the EU has since then failed to use the potential of these two mechanisms. She pointed at the lack of political will to take these two instruments seriously and to develop them. There has not been any report about the implementation of the Guidelines although there should have been a first report after three years and the position of EU Special has been vacant for several years after Jan Figel’s efficient mandate (2016-2019) despite the low status of this position and the limited resources. Without a strong commitment to promote freedom of religion, the EU is depriving itself from the possibility to have any positive impact on the situation of religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar and other countries.

 

During the Q&A, MEP Jan-Bert Ruissen stressed that his political group, the ECR, would envisage to draft a motion for a resolution on religious and ethnic minorities in Myanmar and to gather the support of other political groups. He also declared that the issue would be examined by the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

Photo : AFP/Getty Images





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MYANMAR: Rohingya: the EU has not done all it can and could do more

IRF Roundtable (10.10.2020) – The Justice 4 Rohingya is circulating a letter to advocate for stronger measures from the EU to protect the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. See below for more information from their organization:

 

The Justice 4 Rohingya believes that:

 

  • The EU has not done all it can to ensure justice and accountability for the violations of international law against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Burma,
  • the EU has done all it can to support the humanitarian needs of Rohingya in Burma and of Rohingya refugees,
  • and the EU could do more to promote the rights of the Rohingya, both in Burma and in host countries such as Bangladesh.

 

The letter has very good concrete proposals to drastically step-up the actions in defense of one of the most discriminated and persecuted minority today in the world: the Rohingya.

 

Letter for the protection of the human rights of Rohingya in Burma

 

To: Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission

David Sassoli, President of European Parliament

All Members of the European Parliament

Eamon Gilmore, EU Special Representative for Human Rights

 

Cc: Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on FoRB

 

Dear Madams, Dear Sirs,

 

We write as an informal group of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders and human rights advocates. We are a truly multi-faith group, representing a high degree of diversity. While there is very little we agree on theologically, or politically, we all agree on the importance of religious freedom for all faiths and none.

 

We strongly believe that the European Union (EU) has not done all it can to ensure justice and accountability for the violations of international law against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups in Burma.

 

Neither has the EU done all it can to support the humanitarian needs of Rohingya in Burma and of Rohingya refugees.

 

We think that the EU could do more to promote the rights of the Rohingya, both in Burma and in host countries such as Bangladesh.

 

To this date, nor has the EU committed itself to implementing the recommendations of the Independent United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, available here: https://burmacampaign.org.uk/media/International-Fact-Finding-Report-on-Myanmar.pdf.

 

We understand that there is no single measure that can be taken to address the Rohingya crisis, and that it will take a combination of a wide range of measures. The following are five actions the EU can do immediately to start that process of helping to address the Rohingya crisis, that we advocate for.

 

Five steps the EU can take now to address the Rohingya crisis:

 

  1. Impose sanctions on military companies  

The Burmese military earns hundreds of millions of dollars a year through its vast range of military-owned companies. Burma Campaign UK has published a ‘Dirty List’ exposing international companies linked to military-owned companies.

 

The EU should immediately impose sanctions to stop British companies and others doing business with the military and helping to fund genocide. The Independent United Nations Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar, and Burmese human rights activists, including Justice For Myanmar, have called for such sanctions.

 

  1. Join the genocide case at the International Court of Justice  

 

Gambia has brought a case against Burma at the International Court of Justice that Burma is in breach of the Genocide Convention. Gambia is supported in the case by 56 other members of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation, the Maldives, Canada and the Netherlands. The British government has refused to join.

 

  1. Stop funding the Union Election Commission  

 

The Union Election Commission (UEC) is responsible for the administration of elections in Burma. Its members are appointed by the government. The UEC discriminates against Rohingya seeking to be candidates in Burma’s elections, banning them from standing. It has also acted in a discriminatory way against Muslim and other potential ethnic candidates. The UEC receives funding from the British government, as well as from the European Union, Norway and other countries.

 

  1. Protect and increase funding for refugees and IDPs  

 

International donors, including the UK, do not prioritise the need of refugees and IDPs from Burma when making aid spending decisions. In recent years, aid to refugees in Thailand has even been cut, causing immense suffering to vulnerable populations.

 

With significant cuts in the UK and EU aid budgets on the way, the funding for IDPs and refugees should not only be ring-fenced, but actually increased. These populations are aid dependent and as a number of governments are unwilling to take steps to help them return home safely, we have a special responsibility for their wellbeing.

 

  1. Citizenship is essential for safe return of Rohingya refugees and addressing root causes. Real pressure is needed on Aung San Suu Kyi’s government  

 

Just as the military must be held accountable for their crimes against the Rohingya and other ethnic groups, so must Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. Aung San Suu Kyi is breaking international law by denying the Rohingya citizenship, restricting international aid to the Rohingya and implementing a range of laws and policies which are designed to make life unbearable for the Rohingya, and which are part of the genocide against them.

 

Years of attempting quiet diplomacy to persuade Aung San Suu Kyi to change her discriminatory policies against the Rohingya have completely failed. During the first five years of her government, the situation of the Rohingya has deteriorated on every level, and elections in November 2020 again exclude Rohingya from voting and standing as candidates.

 

The EU Institutions should publicly advocate for an immediate change to the Citizenship Law in Burma to ensure that the Rohingya’s right to citizenship is recognised. The EU Institutions should review whether it should continue to provide development and humanitarian support to and through the government, in light of the appalling human rights record of Aung San Suu Kyi’s government.

 

We therefore respectfully request you to take these proposals into account, and step-up drastically the actions in defence of one of the most discriminated and persecuted minority today in the world: the Rohingya.

 

If you want to sign this letter, write to contact@forbroundtable.org


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