Religious Inequality in Myanmar
Ethnic Kachin, Chin, and Naga endure suffering. Religious discrimination is in some cases even institutionalized. Christians are seen as the expression of a foreign religion, outside of the nationalist view; for years, the military regime has applied stringent discriminatory measures.
The humanitarian crisis that has impacted the lives of so many Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine State is not the only one of its kind in Myanmar. Religious freedom and human rights violations by the military, Buddhist nationalist movements and Burmese citizens not only affect the Rohingya but also many other ethnic minorities scattered throughout the country.
All these groups share the same suffering, but have not received the same media coverage or attention by the international community as the Rohingya struggling along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.This is the case of the Kachin (north), Chin (west), and Naga (on the border with India ) ethnic groups, each with their own large Christian communities that have been persecuted for decades.
By exploiting the Buddhist roots of the country’s culture, Myanmar’s military regime has strongly discriminated against Christians for years. Christianity is seen as the expression of a foreign religion, a practice contrary to its “one nation, one race, and one religion” policy.
Many of these measures are still in force, and anti-Church bias is strong even though Christianity has been present in the country for more than 500 years.
In Myanmar, all Christian communities are subject to restrictions on land acquisition for religious purposes. Military bureaucratic procedures prevent the issuance of permits to these communities. Although they have a place to worship, some Christians are forced to use private properties or their homes.
Within predominantly Buddhist areas, especially those in the strongholds of Ma Ba Tha’s ultra-nationalist monks, it is almost impossible for Christians to gather together. At the same time, the government spends public money to build pagodas and monasteries, part of its policy of promoting the spread of Buddhism.
In December of 2016, a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) highlighted some of the worst episodes of intimidation and violence against Christians in the Asiatic country.
These violations include forced transfers, destruction of cemeteries, attacks on places of worship, and the ongoing campaign of forced conversions and brainwashing. These acts of brainwashing take place in schools funded by the government in border regions, particularly in areas that are inhabited by ethnic Chin and Naga. Another common practice is the forced, unlawful seizure of resource-rich land by local authorities.
Progress on the construction of a proper Mother House for the PIME Priests in Myanmar
is constantly delayed by government regulations.
Troughout Kachin areas, violations of religious freedom are intertwined with the ongoing conflict between armed groups and government forces. The military routinely occupies churches and summons entire congregations for mass interrogations and indiscriminate arrests. Very often the faithful and clergymen are considered allies of the rebels and are therefore punished.
Myanmar’s powerful Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) have devastated, damaged, and destroyed many places of worship. With almost total impunity, the Tatmadaw continue to commit serious human rights abuses such as sexual violence inside church compounds and the torture of clergymen, believers, and even ordinary citizens in the wrong place at the wrong time.
As for the Kachin, after more than five years of conflict, more than 120,000 people have been forced to flee and live in desperate conditions, waiting to return. As long as the conflict endures, there is no real prospect for internally displaced Kachin to return to a situation of security and dignity.In some cases, religious discrimination is institutionalized in the business sector. Kachin, Naga, and Chin Christian public servants and others employed by the government are usually overlooked for promotion in favor of Buddhist employees.
When Christians hold government positions, they face sanctions if they do not support Buddhist initiatives. In some cases, the authorities take contributions from the salaries of Christian civil servants for Buddhist activities. In the Chin State, government employees are also forced to work on Sundays, without compensation.
Buddhism is considered Myanmar’s state religion, though not officially. The military, whose power is not subject to the control of civil society, has stressed the religion’s “special position” and stands as the self-appointed defender of Burmese culture and tradition.
Over the years, this has led to deep rifts between the country’s various ethno-religious groups; this, in turn, has allowed the Armed Forces to reassert their power from time to time.
At the date of this article’s publication, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit Myanmar from the 27th to the 30th of November. Following this trip, he will travel to Bangladesh on the 30th, all in an effort to address the persecution that Rohingya Muslims have faced in the two countries.