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Minorities persecuted in Burma

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Religious freedom is being violated in the Matupi District of Burma, says John Smith Thang.

Having religious freedom means that persons can believe, worship, and witness or be free not to hold any belief, as  they wish. They are also free to change their beliefs or religion, and associate with others to express that belief.  In claiming this right, the rights of others to freedom of religion must not be destroyed. Religious tolerance should be practised.

Religious tolerance is the extension of religious freedom to people of all religious traditions whether or not any individual agrees with such different beliefs or practices. It does not require acceptance of all religions as equally true.  Religious freedom and religious tolerance are inter-related. A balance needs to be preserved between these two sides of the same human right.

What is the philosophy or doctrine of different religions concerning religious freedom?  Buddhism has  characteristics of what would be expected in a cosmic religion for the future: it transcends a personal God, avoids dogmas and theology…as a meaningful unity.  This means that Buddhism is not based on dogmatic theology but in the belief of global religions which uphold unity and peace.

I am concerned about the situation in Burma, where the military government is misusing religion as a tool to violate and oppress Christians and those of other religions in a way akin to ethnic discrimination.  

Burma (Myanmar)

The Union of Burma (Myanmar) is a naturally rich but undeveloped and impoverished country. It has a wealth of natural resources such as petroleum, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, marble, limestone, precious stones, and natural gas. It is one of the largest teak producers in the world, as well as being the world’s largest rice exporter. Burma has good economic potential.

Burma has a population of 52 million people within 261,589 sq. miles of land. With luxuriantly forested mountains, lakes, rivers and valleys, it is an interesting and wonderful place for tourism. Its climate is also one of the best in the world. Not surprisingly, in earlier times, Burma was called the “Golden Land” in South-East Asia.

The Burmese population consists of multi-ethnic communities. Burmans are the majority and the rest are Kachin, Karenni, Karen, Chin, Mon, Arakan and Shan. Apart from the Burman majority, almost half of the population of the country comprises multi-ethnic communities, who inhabit more than half the territory, which is native ethnic land.

Equality in power and social standing is possible, allowing various ethnic cultures to live together. This means that neither Burman nor any other ethnic group should be seen as superior to others.  They can live equally and peacefully side by side.

Burma is also a multi-religious society comprising Buddhists, Christians, Muslims and others.  Buddhism is the religion of the majority of believers. Till today, the military government in Burma has ruled the country without observing the constitution or consulting a legislature, both of which have been suspended. Although the Constitution in 1947 permitted legislative and administrative restrictions on non-Buddhist religious freedom, the current military rule by decree is worse.  

A UN Special Rapporteur, in a UN Commission on Human Rights report of 16 October 1992 addressed to the Government of Burma, highlighted the following: torture, arbitrary detention, forced disappearances, intimidation, gang-rape, forced labour, robbery, the burning down of homes, forced eviction, land confiscation and population resettlement as well as the systematic destruction of towns and mosques occurred in the border areas of Burma. Religious persecution and restrictions in addition to these human rights violations occurred there.  
Violation of Buddhism

The authoritarian nature is very rare in Buddhism. Not only is       the present regime’s rule ‘religionless’  and ‘kindless’ even to their own people and religion, it violates Buddhism itself. Buddhist culture is known for its gentleness, compassion and tolerance' (UN Commission on Human Rights, 1992).  Buddhism is the majority religion in Burma and almost all the rulers claim to be Buddhists, but even Buddhists in Burma have no freedom.  
The destruction of people in the whole country, the failure of governing structures, all  affect other religious associations as well as Buddhists  In the 1988 uprisings, numerous monks were forcibly disrobed, jailed, or killed by army troops . Six hundred  monks were killed in the same uprising during a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.  

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About 300 Buddhist monks and novices were jailed for protesting against the ruling military regime.  Security forces have also destroyed or looted Buddhist temples, churches and mosques of other ethnic communities.

This is a definite violation of religious freedom in Burma; the military rulers do not worry about killing Buddhist monks while they claim to adhere to Buddhism.  So the oppression and persecution of Christians and those of other religions is not really difficult for them.

Non-Buddhists, other ethnic groups' rights violated

On 16 March, military government troops destroyed tombs in a Muslim cemetery in Kawthaung  forcing people to flee at the rate of 5,000-7,000 per day by March 1992. In January 1991, 1,500 villagers in Buthidaung Township were allegedly made to leave their homes because of the ill-treatment, rape and killing during porter duty. People were made to carry heavy loads of food, bricks or ammunition for troops without pay. (UN Commission on Human Rights, 1992). On 15 March, military troops were burning mosques and hounding Muslims of Bengali origin.

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(UDHR) Article 13, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.  Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”  But in Burma, travel abroad for religious purposes is subject to restrictive passports and visa issuance, foreign exchange controls, and government monitoring (US Department of State, 2000).

Forum 18 News Service has found the ethnic Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin  and Muslim Rohingyas suffering particularly badly.  An example of such religious persecution of ethnic minorities is the regime’s vigorously pursued policy of religious persecution against Chin Christians in order to expand the influence of Buddhism in Chin state.  

Many Christian ethnic tribes are heavily oppressed by the government for both  religious and political reasons, especially in the ethnic regions where communities are fighting for freedom against the Burmese military.  The military government forcibly converted people of ethnic and religious minorities to Buddhism, especially in Matupi district.

Christian crisis in Matupi District: The Boltlang cross incident

Matupi district is situated in the southern Chin state. Chin people are an ethnic minority and 90 per cent of the Chin population are Christians. Churches here have been replaced with pagodas, built with forced labour (Chin Human Rights Organisation, 2002).  The military regime tries to build pagodas on hill-tops in the Chin State, and the army, IB 89 (Light Infantry battalion number), was involved in the conspiracy to effect this change,  as the Chin State is a domain of Christianity in Burma.

In 2002, in Matupi, there was a 30-foot tall concrete cross just outside the village which authorities had been trying to tear down. The population in Matupi district are all Christians, and they built the cross as their symbol of faith on top of Boltlang Mountain where it is publicly visible. The cross had been there  for two decades as testimony of their faith.  The military government has shown total disrespect and inhumanity towards Matupi Christians in destroying this monument.

This is how it started: attempts to destroy the cross had been made since 1997; in March 2002, another attempt was made after a visit to Matupi town by Chief of Special Operations Bureau Major-General Ye Myint.  

The cross stands on the hilltop, one mile south of Matupi, where it can be seen easily from most parts of the town (Chin Human Rights Organisation, 2002).  The pressure to destroy the monument came following his visit to the town of Matupi, as he was offended by the sight of the 30-foot tall cross. Local authorities in Matupi and the nearby town of Mindat were instructed to pressurise local Christian leaders to dismantle the cross.

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In their bid to have the cross removed, the military regime, known as the State Peace and Development Council( SPDC), closed down development and humanitarian projects conducted by the Matupi Baptist Association (MBA), saying, “unless the Association dismantled the cross the authorities would not authorise further operation of the projects”.  The projects include improvement of the town’s water supply system to make sufficient water supply available to residents in an area  where water is the main concern of the hill inhabitants.  Although assistance for the project was obtained from the Japanese Embassy in Rangoon, the military rulers shamelessly  forbade its continuance. They repeatedly warned inhabitants that they would refuse permission for water-pipes if they continued to refuse to pull down the cross.

In another related incident, the local SPDC authority in Matupi turned down the application made by 200 households for telephone connections to their homes. Fees of 85,000 Kyats had already been paid to the authorities for these to be installed (Chin Human Rights Organisation, 2002)

On 3 January 2005, the giant cross on top of Boltlang was destroyed by Burmese troops on the direct order of Colonel San Aung, one of the highest ranking military commanders in the region.  After destroying the cross, troops from the Light Infantry Battalion (304) hoisted a Burmese flag as a sign of victory against Christianity in the Chin State, where more than 90 percent of the population is Christian.  There are reports that the regime is making plans to construct a Buddhist pagoda on the site.

This bad SPDC attitude, manifested in its deliberate tearing down of  the symbol of  the Christian faith on Boltlang, is an insult to Christianity.

This latest destruction is part of a larger systematic effort by the military regime to persecute Christians in order to expand the influence of Buddhism in ethnic Burma, a country characterised by religious and ethnic diversity.  In the incident of the Matupi Boltlang cross, the systematic organisation of religious persecution is seen in every authority from top-down, to the local SPDC3 authority of Matupi.

Burma’s military regime has no moral or legal justification for persecuting Chin Christians on the basis of their religious affiliation or ethnic identity. There is no moral basis for the junta to use the name of any religion, including Buddhism, to which it claims to adhere, to justify the persecution of other religions. It is an insult to Buddhism itself, a religion of peace and compassion, for the Burmese military regime to use Buddhism as a disguise to achieve political objectives by persecuting people of a non-Buddhist religion.

The destruction of the last Christian cross on public display in Matupi by Burmese troops from the Light Infantry Battalion (304) paves the way for the construction of a Buddhist pagoda in its place. The regime must immediately abandon its policy of discrimination and persecution of religious minorities in Burma, which creates ethnic and political conflicts amongst its people.

The Military government has failed to implement the basic human right of religious freedom for ethnic minorities under international law. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states, “In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

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Construction of churches and other problems

Another problem for ethnic Christians is that obtaining permission to build places of worship, importing indigenous-language translations of traditional sacred texts, and conversions by Christian clergy are prohibited. Moreover, in Burma, permanent foreign religious missions have not been allowed to operate since the mid-1960s.

Christian groups continue to have difficulties in obtaining permission to build new churches, particularly on prominent sites in ethnic states. Authorities reportedly have not authorised the construction of any new churches since 1997 and have instructed that any Christian worship facility be called a religious centre' rather than a church'.

Young people are cautioned to avoid church attendance, to stop preaching, and are not allowed to gather for worship or evangelical purposes. Pastors have also been imprisoned. Christian sites and graveyards are frequently demolished and replaced with pagodas. These are often built using Christian leaders and pastors as forced labour. Christians have also been raped, tortured and murdered because of their beliefs.

Forced conversion to Buddhism

The military uses Buddhism as a political tool. Ethnic minorities are forced to convert to Buddhism by highly coercive means to prevent conversion to Christianity. Since 1990 government authorities and security forces have promoted Buddhism over Christianity in ethnic minority areas, including Matupi district.
Monks of the Hill Regions Buddhist Missions have sought to coercively induce ethnic people to convert to Buddhism in efforts to “Burmanise” the Chin ethnic minority. This involved a large increase in military units stationed in the Chin State and other predominately ethnic areas. There is state-sponsored immigration of Buddhist Burman monks from other regions, and construction of Buddhist monasteries and shrines in Christian communities with few or no Buddhists adherents. Local government officials order Christian people to attend sermons by newly arrived Buddhist monks who disparaged Christianity and promised monthly support payments to individuals and households who convert to Buddhism often by means of forced donations' of money.

The Buddhist monks try to force conversion to Buddhism by forc down churches in their villages and then desecrating these churches.

Summing up the situation

UN sources say the situation in Burma is deteriorating dramatically. The UN Special Rapporteur on Burma reported in 1997 that, “there is essentially no freedom of thought, opinion, expression or association in Myanmar.” (UN Commission on Human Rights, 1992)

Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the first secretary (Prime Minister) of the SPDC, in 1992 summed up the situation in Burma, as there being essentially “no law at all” under military rule.  This is from the military leader himself, describing the Burmese situation.

The perpetrators of these human rights violations are the military regime of Burma (SPDC)' and their supporters. The victims are, in the case of Matupi, ethnic Chin Christians. However, generally, the Muslims also suffer similar persecution under the SPDC regime.  

The Burmese military regime’s attitude is totally against international law and human rights norms, the UDHR, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The United Nations and the international community must pressure the Burmese military government to observe international human rights law and standards.

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The author John Smith Thang is a Burmese MA human rights student of Mahidol University, Thailand 

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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23 Nov 2011 8.10pm

This is a horrible story, but one that explains why my new Chin refugee friends have moved to the U.S. It is unspeakably sad to hear of one trying to take another’s religion away, because one’s religion is one’s life.

I would like to receive updates on this story, and am a teacher looking for a Chin pen pal who speaks English (which my refugee family does not yet).


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