Persecuted Church: Myanmar

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Every month our ministry chooses a different country where Christians are being persecuted and we commit to pray for them, as you can see in the sidebar here on our website. The country we are praying for in May is Myanmar. Much of the information regarding persecution in Myanmar that I’ve included here comes from Open Doors USA’s World Watch Research Myanmar: Country Dossier (WWR).

Country Background

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is the largest mainland country in southeast Asia. The population is approximately 54.4 million people according to Worldometer. There are a few large cities, but the majority of the population is located in rural farming villages. An estimated 4.3 million people (about 8% of the total population) are Christians, making them the largest minority religious group. The majority religious group is Buddhism, with other important minority religions including Islam and animism.

Buddhism has exerted a powerful force in this region since the first century, and it was adopted as the religion of the important Pagan Kingdom by the 11th century. Hundreds of temples and monasteries from this period can still be found today. Christianity arrived in the area in 1554 via Catholic missionaries, but the progress was slow and by 1832 there were only about 3,000 Christians. That would change with the arrival of the British. Britain conquered Myanmar in 1886 and turned it into a province of India which they called Burma. Consequently, they started missions schools and programs, resulting in a growth of the Christian population but also, for many, feelings of disdain for it as a foreign disruption. In 1937 Burma was granted independence from India, and in 1947 they were given full independence. There was a coup in 1962 and a socialist government was established. Another coup in 1988 took place in response to civil unrest, quelching the civilian uprising with violent force. In 1990 the military government held elections, and the National League for Democracy won a majority of seats in the legislature. Nevertheless, the military government did not allow the legislature to convene. This continued past 2008 when a new constitution was adopted. In 2010 new elections were held, although the elections were categorized as unfair by international observers. The military party won the majority of the seats in the legislature, and they chose a former general as president in 2011. The process for new reformations had now begun. The next elections were held in 2015 and international observers noted that they were much more fair. The National League for Democracy won a majority of seats in the legislature, which they continue to hold today. The next elections will take place this year.

This brief historical overview reveals a couple important factors.

First is the influence of Buddhism. It has very deep historical roots in the region. Ever since the first attempts to regain independence from British colonialism, Buddhism has been part of the national spirit. Anyone who converts from Buddhism may be seen as a traitor.

The second factor is the power that the military has. It is only very recently that the government has started to taste the fruits of democracy, and the military still holds a substantial amount of power. For example, according to the 2008 constitution which is currently the one in use, the military party is guaranteed 25% of the total seats of the legislature, and they have a strong grip on the economy.

Ethnicity is also an important factor. The ethnic majority is Burman/Bamar, at about 56% according to data from 2000. The country is divided into states, and the borders are primarily based on where the different ethnic groups reside. For example, Kachin state is predominantly populated by those who belong to the Kachin ethnic group. Ethnic differences have resulted in a long period of internal warfare in Myanmar. In fact, one of the longest-running civil wars in the world is the war between insurgents belonging to the Karen ethnic group and the Myanmar military, ongoing since 1949. This is one conflict among many. Other ethnic groups, such as the Kachin and Rakhine likewise are fighting against the Myanmar military in an attempt to gain more autonomy or rights. Each ethnic group may have several different insurgency groups with different goals, and insurgent groups of different ethnicities have also come into conflict with each other, further complicating issues. Peace talks and ceasefire agreements have not been very successful.

It may be surprising to hear that persecution is taking place in a majority Buddhist country. When most of us think of Buddhism we probably think of peaceable monks who spend their time meditating. But in countries like Myanmar, this is not necessarily the whole story. When Buddhism was adopted as the official religion of monarchs, it needed to be adjusted to justify warfare. As one article puts it, “As soon as Buddhist-majority states came into being, the monkhood had to find ways to justify violence, including war, especially that perpetrated by their virtuous sovereign against an opponent.” Justifying war for a king is one thing, but openly calling for violence against minority religious groups during peacetime is another. The religious strictures of Buddhism forbid monks from calling for acts of violence, but in some cases they have tip-toed this line. For example, one prominent monk said that he was not calling for violence, but simply warning people about a potential danger: “I am only warning people about Muslims. Consider it like if you had a dog, that would bark at strangers coming to your house – it is to warn you. I am like that dog. I bark.” In the current situation in Myanmar, the Buddhist majority sees the presence of Muslims (and also Christians) as a threat to the existence of Buddhism and the security of the nation of Myanmar.

There are several Buddhist organizations which have increased this sentiment. The Association for the Protection of Race and Religion (also called MaBaTha) and the 969 Movement consist of radical Buddhists. These groups are perceived as being anti-Muslim, and indeed most of their activities have been directed against Muslims, but this is only part of the group’s essence. As a report by the International Crisis Groups puts it, “Far from being an organisation narrowly focused on political or anti-Muslim goals, it sees itself – and is viewed by many of its supporters – as a broad-based social and religious movement dedicated above all else to the protection and promotion of Buddhism at a time of unparalleled change and uncertainty in a country and society where historically Buddhism and the state have been inseparable. . . . Forays into party politics are controversial – even within MaBaTha – but its view that Buddhism is under threat is widely shared among Myanmar Buddhists.”

In 2015, four so-called Race and Religion Protection Laws were enacted. The first law outlawed polygamy, which is practiced by some groups of Muslims in Myanmar. The second law established that anyone who wishes to convert to a different religion must seek approval from a religious committee. The third law sets up obstacles for the marriage of Buddhist women to non-Buddhist men, including the possibility that if the community disapproves of the relationship, the issue may be taken to court. The fourth law allows the government to outlaw births less than 36 months apart in specified areas.

The most publicized aspect of radical Buddhism in Myanmar has been the ongoing Rohingya crisis. The Rohingya are a Muslim ethnic group. Prior to the violence of recent years, they accounted for about one-third of the population of Rakhine State. Although some groups of Rohingya have roots in the nation since the 15th century, they are not recognized as a native ethnic group and are not considered legal citizens. The Rohingya had faced discrimination in various forms for decades, and there has been periodic violence between Muslims and Buddhists, but in 2017 violence erupted after a Rohingya militant group attacked police and army bases. In response, the Myanmar military began indiscriminately burning down Rohingya villages and killing thousands of civilians. The UN has categorized it as ethnic cleansing. 900,000 Rohingya have fled their homes and escaped into the neighboring country of Bangladesh, and thousands more have fled to other nearby countries. Many Rohingya still remain in Myanmar, however, and the danger has not gone away.

Due to the ethnic warfare and Rohingya ethnic cleansing, hundreds of thousands of non-combatants have been forced to flee their homes. It is estimated that 457,000 people have been internally displaced due to violence in Myanmar just since the beginning of 2020.

This background information should give us a better idea of the situation which persecuted Christians face in Myanmar. Now we will focus on the unique struggles which they face.

Persecution

Information about persecution is not always easy to come by. Reporters are not free to publish controversial information in Myanmar and may be imprisoned for reporting on certain subjects. For example, two Reuters journalists were each imprisoned for 500 days after a Pulitzer Prize winning report exposing details regarding the massacres of Rohingya. As Reporters Without Borders notes, “The level of self-censorship is very high, especially on three subjects: the Rohingyas (a term that is banned), the Buddhist religion (Myanmar’s social glue) and Aung San Suu Kyi, seen by the vast majority as the mother of the nation. . . . Journalists are still often prosecuted under article 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Act, which criminalizes online defamation.” Another problem is that due to the ongoing ethnic warfare, it is difficult and dangerous to gather information about local communities in certain states to find information about persecution, or anything else for that matter.

WWR says that the strongest driver of persecution in Myanmar is Buddhist nationalism: “Buddhism is embedded in the nation’s culture and there are Buddhist communities which would like to remain purely Buddhist. This is commonly emphasized by radical Buddhists and tolerated - and to some extent supported - by the national government.” Although Buddhists primarily feel threatened by the presence of Muslims, the notion of Buddhist purity means Christians are also persecuted. Although the nationalist group MaBaTha was declared to be illegal by the national government, it still has a strong influence locally. Local monks may stir up sentiments of religious purity for the nation, arguing that the Buddhist majority must be defended against foreign influences like Islam and Christianity. The Constitution affirms a special status for the Buddhist religion over and against all others. Buddhism is taught in schools, and even non-Buddhists are required to recite Buddhist prayers.

Christians may face general persecution in the form of discrimination. “In one report, a teacher refused to give a Christian student a list of questions provided to others in preparation for tests. In another case, when a family sold a plot of land, the earnings were distributed to all siblings of the family except the convert” (WWR). In schools, Christian and other minority children are especially singled out for bullying and scapegoating. They may also be presented with less opportunities for advancement in society, such as higher education. Buddhists are given preference over religious minorities in hiring and promotion. Humanitarian aid and access to water may be denied to Christians.

Those who convert from Buddhism, Islam, or other religions such as animism, will face pressure from their family and community. In some villages, if someone is discovered to have converted to something other than Buddhism, they will be exiled from the village. In other less severe cases, they may still be seen as a disgrace to their family and community and the conversion will be resisted. Conversion is mediated by the state according to the Religious Conversion Law. In order to convert to a different religion, one must go through a certification process which involves interviews, a several month period of religious studies, and a publicized announcement that the individual wishes to convert. Thus, while becoming a Christian is not illegal, there is a lot of social pressure on any would-be convert. WWR notes that because of the stringency of the Conversion Law, many people do not go through this legal process but rather convert secretly. This can be very difficult since they will be expected to participate in public Buddhist ceremonies and donations to monks/temples.

There have been issues with church buildings. “While church buildings exist in various parts of Myanmar, restrictions are in place to make it difficult to obtain permission for building new churches. There are up to eight different levels of permission required to build a church, and applications must pass through various military-run departments and district and township-level administrative offices (often led by former army officers). As a result, permission for land ownership for churches almost never materializes” (WWR). Local community leaders monitor church activities. Churches need permission from village leaders to engage in any activities outside of their church building, which the village leaders are generally reluctant to allow. As a result, many Christians meet in house-churches or businesses. In some states, churches have been shut down. For example, in September 2018 one of the armies involved in the national conflict, the United Wa State Army, shut down dozens of churches in the semi-autonomous Wa State and questioned their pastors. The Baptist churches were allowed to reopen one year later under the conditions that the pastors were ethnically Wa and operated their congregations with permission from local authorities, but the Catholic churches remain closed.

Ethnic issues also impact Christians. The ethnic majority is Bamar, and if one is Bamar then they are expected to be Buddhist. Those who differ from this standard are rejected socially and suspected politically. Most Christians belong to ethnic minorities: “As many Christians belong to the ethnic minorities such as Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen, Christianity is viewed by many with some suspicion. This suspicion could increase now that the latest figures on religious affiliation (the 2014 census) have been published, which showed a strong growth in the number of Christians” (WWR). In areas where they are the majority, Christians may freely display Christian symbols publically, but such behavior can be dangerous in other areas. Even Christians who are not converts may experience pressure to become Buddhist. Buddhist monks may evangelize or build temples in Christian villages.

Persecution also accompanies the ethnic conflicts. The army represents the majority Bamar ethnic group, and they drum up local support via appeals to a spirit of national, ethnic, or religious pride. As we have seen in regard to the Rohingya crisis, the Myanmar military is not opposed to killing civilians if they feel they can justify it. WWR states, “Despite all hopes for democracy, the army has intensified its fight against insurgent groups as well as ethnic minorities (which include Christians). The fact that the war has continued despite all Peace Conference meetings - and even intensified in 2018 - shows where the true power lies.”

An example is the Kachin conflict. The Kachin ethnic group is primarily Christian, so the conflict in this state affects Christians acutely. Christians are involved in the fighting, and they are also civilians. Those civilians who are the same ethnic group or religion as these Kachin insurgents may face retaliatory attacks from opposing armies. In their fight against insurgents, the Myanmar military has indiscriminately razed villages and churches, killing innocent civilians. “In Kachin state, which is over 90 percent Baptist and about 5 percent Catholic, the Tamadaw [the Myanmar military] has burned 406 villages and 311 churches and displaced more than 130,000 people in the past seven years.” Any action on the part of Kachin Christians to speak up could be construed as alliance with rebel groups. In 2016 two Kachin Baptist pastors were imprisoned for speaking out against violence perpetrated against civilians by the Myanmar military: “Two Kachin Baptist pastors who helped a journalist to photograph a Catholic church, apparently bombed by Myanmar’s army in 2016, have been sentenced to two years in prison, for their alleged support of the Kachin Independence Army. . . .Relationships between the Kachin and the military are strained not only by the conflict, but also by slow progress in identifying and prosecuting perpetrators of the many documented cases of sexual abuse by Myanmar troops in the region. Two Kachin Baptist women teachers were raped and murdered in February 2015, and no-one has ever been tried or convicted for their deaths.”

Additionally, if the Christians refuse to assist the insurgents of their fellow ethnicity or try to preach peace, they may be treated as traitors. WWR also notes the possibility of fighting between Christians who belong to different ethnic/insurgency groups: “Where they are in power, leaders of ethnic minority groups and insurgencies tend to do everything to stay in power. Whoever is seen as a threat to this power will be fought against, even if it is a fellow Christian.”

In areas where Christians are a minority, they may be targeted by Buddhist insurgent groups. WWR reports one case: “In January and February 2019, one pastor and one church elder disappeared in Rakhine State, allegedly abducted and then killed by the insurgent Arakan Army. The elder's body was found but the whereabouts of the pastor remain unknown.”

Because of all of the fighting, Christians may be left homeless by attacks or forced to pre-emptively flee. Conditions in these camps are not good, with lack of clean water and sanitation. Moreover, people in these camps may be left vulnerable to attacks or assault. Human Rights Watch reported a specific problem in the Kachin camps: women are being illegally trafficked into China, sometimes lured away by the promise of making a living wage. Men are the primary breadwinners in Myanmar, and when they are killed in the fighting their families are left without many options. This is disproportionately affecting Christian women because the Kachin are mostly Christian. If the women are able to somehow return back home, they are stigmatized by their friends and family.

There is also the issue of illicit trade. Certain regions in Myanmar, such as Kachin and Shan states, are part of what is called the Golden Triangle. This region is one of the largest producers of opium in the world. Other lucrative products from this region include jade and timber. Anyone who gets in the way of those who seek to profit (such as the military, ethnic insurgency groups, or criminal organizations) takes the risk of being displaced from their homes or killed. Again, because these lucrative resources are in Kachin state these issues are especially acute for Christians. Many turn to drugs to cope with the harsh realities of life, and it is estimated that one person per household uses heroin in northern Myanmar. One Christian group, Pat Jasan, has become prominent in its fight against drug addiction. A coalition of Catholic and Protestant church leaders started rehab centers in Kachin State which have come under some criticism for harsh practices like chaining up addicts, not providing adequate medical care, and destroying opium crops.

How to Pray

Here are some specific ways you can pray for Christians in Myanmar:

  • Pray that Christians in Myanmar will be encouraged despite the harsh difficulties they face.
  • Pray for an end to ethnic armed conflicts in Myanmar.
  • Pray that violence against Rohingya will end. Pray that Christians will show kindness to other minority groups and boldly share their faith.
  • Pray that people in northern Myanmar will reject drugs and turn to Yeshua.
  • Pray for an end to human trafficking.
  • Pray that ministries such as Open Doors and Voice of the Martyrs will be successful in providing Bibles to believers, especially in remote villages.
  • Pray that those who are sharing their faith will be protected and successful.
  • Pray that religious freedom will prevail in the nation.
  • Pray that Myanmarese (including the persecutors) will come to know the truth and receive salvation through Yeshua.

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