Burma: WEA-RLC Report: The Gathering Crisis in Burma’s Ethnic Minority States

A majority of Burma’s estimated 2.1 million Christians, mostly from ethnic minorities, live in states along the country’s border which are most vulnerable to Burmese military regime’s brutalities in the run-up to and after the November 7 elections.

WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report

The Gathering Crisis in Burma’s Ethnic Minority States
October 1, 2010

A majority of Burma’s estimated 2.1 million Christians, mostly from ethnic minorities, live in states along the country’s border which are most vulnerable to Burmese military regime’s brutalities in the run-up to and after the November 7 elections.

The military regime, misnamed as the State Peace and Development Council (SDPC), is known as one of the world’s worst violators of human rights. It has ruled Burma with an iron fist for 20 years. When the previous election was held in 1990, military generals did not honor the results and imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party which emerged the winner.

In the 2010 election, the junta’s longstanding rivalry against pro-democracy forces and ethnic minorities will manifest differently. WEA-RLC has learned from independent Burmese media and pro-democracy activists operating from neighboring countries that stakes are particularly high for ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, in the upcoming election in Buddhist-majority Burma.

At least two disturbing developments may surface. One, the new regime is expected to launch a major military offensive on ethnic minorities, especially in the states of Karen, Kachin and Chin, which have large Christian populations. Two, the assistance the international community provides to pro-democracy forces and Burmese refugees, many of who are Christian, may take a dip.

Junta to Retain
PowerThe fears are primarily based on the expected overwhelming majority of pro-military legislators in the new parliament.

Irrespective of the election results, the new constitution – which will come into force when the first parliament sits in session after the election – will retain military’s control over the country. The constitution guarantees at least 25 percent of seats in parliament to the military while also granting it powers to suspend civil liberties and legislative authority in the interest of “national security.”

Most people were not able to read the draft constitution released only a month before the May 2008 referendum through which it was passed, noted a Human Rights Watch report. It was only available on sale in some bookshops. It is widely believed that the referendum was rigged. Besides, it was held soon after Cyclone Nargis struck southern Burma killing at least 140,000 people and displacing an estimated 2.4 million people in the Irrawaddy Delta and Rangoon, the former capital. 

Apart from the reserved seats, a military-backed party is likely to get most other seats. The junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), with 1,163 candidates, is the largest and the only party capable of fielding candidates in all constituencies – for seats in national as well as regional assemblies. The second largest party, the National Unity Party, with 980 candidates, is also pro-junta.

The NLD – the only pro-democracy party that could have taken on the junta – decided to boycott the election, and as a result it was disbanded by the junta-controlled Election Commission. Some members of the NLD splintered to form a separate party, the National Democratic Force, but they will not be able to field more than 164 candidates.

It is estimated that due to financial constraints and legal hurdles put up by the junta, independent democratic and ethnic minority parties will not be able to contest in even 50 percent of the constituencies. Moreover, around 2,100 democracy activists remain behind the bars as political prisoners.

Minorities in Danger
Many of Burma’s ethnic minority groups – forming around 30 percent of the country’s 53.4 million – have been asking for greater autonomy in their respective states since Burma’s independence in 1948. The demands are partly rooted in the understanding the ethnic groups had with the British rulers at the time of the independence, and partly reaction to the military rulers’ hardcore centrist approach with the agenda of Burman nationalism. It is estimated that close to 70 percent of Burma’s people are ethnic Burman.

Against this backdrop, military generals see Christians and Christianity – among other ethnic and religious communities – as a threat to their rule and unionist (one nation-one people) agenda.

The ethnic Chins people from Chin state along Burma-India border are predominantly Christian. A many of the Karen and Kachin people in the states of Karen and Kachin along Burma-Thailand border are also Christian.

Sections of the ethnic minorities have formed their own armies to resist attacks by military personnel – often launched without any provocation. Most ethnic group leaders and human rights organizations say no one saves local residents in ethnic areas at the time of a military onslaught – which includes landmine explosions, rape of women, indiscriminate killing of people, forced displacement and so on – except for these independent ethnic armies. Some ethnic groups have sought ceasefire agreements with the junta, but the latter has shown no interest. The clashes carry on.

Last year, the junta asked all independent armies to join the military as border security forces without giving any assurance of autonomy or peace agreement. While a few armies joined the government forces, the others have refused. This explains why one of the emphases of the new constitution – drafted without any participation of the people or ethnic groups – is “non-disintegration” of Burma.

Most exiled journalists believe that the new junta-controlled regime will make an attempt to finish off all anti-government groups, especially the Karen, Kachin and Chin, unless they merge with the military and forsake demands for autonomy. This may take place any time after the election in November. Casualties may include unarmed local residents, children, women and old people.

The junta’s anti-Christian stand is public knowledge in Burma. In January 2007, a secret document leaked to the media from government sources revealed that the military regime wanted to wipe out Christianity in the country, according to a report in the UK’s Telegraph daily (January 21, 2007). Titled “Programme to destroy the Christian religion in Burma,” the incendiary memo contained point by point instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state, said the daily. It added that the text, which opened with the line, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised,” called for anyone caught evangelizing to be imprisoned.

It’s not surprising that the constitution mandates the government to inculcate “patriotic spirit” and “the correct way of thinking” among the people. Moreover, it says, “The Union recognizes special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.”

While the constitution (Article 34) guarantees the freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice – the word “propagate” is missing – religion, it adds (in Article 360) that “the freedom of religious practice so guaranteed shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.” It also states (in 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.”

These provisions may look harmless and legitimate on surface, but in the absence of unambiguous definitions and given the anti-Christian slant of the military, they are likely to be misused to persecute Christians and other minorities.

Legitimacy after Election
Increased tensions in the ethnic states can lead to an increased influx of refugees in neighboring countries, such as Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. However, given that these countries engage with Burma to meet their strategic interests, they may harden their policy towards Burmese refugees. It is estimated that roughly 150,000 Burmese are already living as refugees in Thailand along the border with Burma. India also has over 100,000 refugees from Burma. To help Burma improve its image as a new “democracy,” its neighbors may expel the existing refuges or restrict the entry of new refugees. For, the presence of refugees reflects a crisis in the country of origin.

Since many nations and regional blocs give priority to strategic interests over human rights, many of them may choose to overlook the evident subversion of democratic principles in the Burma election and give legitimacy to the new regime – possibly resulting in budget cuts by international organizations and foreign governments. However, there are a few responsible and conscientious nations, blocs, organizations and individuals that are the hope for Burma.

Regrettably, the junta cannot be prevented from coming to power, one way or the other, after the election. But awareness about the persistent need for peace and reconciliation – though tripartite dialogue between the government, democratic forces and ethnic minorities – and democratic governance must be sustained. 

International opinion against the Burmese junta is gaining strength.