By Hanna Hindstrom
Christians in Chin state face systematic religious discrimination at the hands of the Burmese government and are often forced to convert to Buddhism, a new report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) has revealed.
CHRO accuses the nominally-civilian government of pushing ahead with the military policy of “Burmanisation” in ethnic minority areas, resulting in widespread human rights abuses including violations of religious freedom, forced labour, torture, and sexual violence.
The report, based on 100 in-depth interviews over the past two years, documents numerous cases where the state has destroyed crosses or denied Christians the right to worship through arbitrary regulations, threats and violence. Many civilians complain of being forced to build pagodas or hand over their land to make way for Buddhist constructions.
“President Thein Sein’s government claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de-facto state religion,” said CHRO Program Director Salai Ling. “The discriminatory state institutions and ministries of previous military regimes continue to operate in the same way today. Few reforms have reached Chin state.”
The report criticises the government’s Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training Schools (known locally as Na Ta La), where Christian students are offered a more affordable education, but are regularly coerced or threatened into converting to Buddhism. Some students even report being forced to shave their heads and wear monks’ or nuns’ robes.
“If you don’t want to be a monk, you must join the military,” the headmaster of a Na Ta La school told students in 2010, according to the report.
Buddhist monks are reported to be working together with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in recruiting Na Ta La students, as well as tracking down those who have fled from the schools.
“Local people tell us that some of these monks they believe to be military agents, and there certainly seems to be a very close relationship between monks and the military in Chin state over the years, with the military exacting forced labour to build pagoda monasteries and more recently with regard to these schools,” CHRO Advocacy Director, Rachel Fleming told DVB.
A 20-year old Chin woman who ran away from one such school in May 2011 told CHRO, “The monks from the school came there with soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 274, looking for me. They told me, ‘You have to come back to the school or else you will be forced to join the army.’ ”
“The schools appear to offer a way out of poverty but there is a high price to pay for Chin students,” said Fleming. “They are given a stark choice between abandoning their identity and converting to Buddhism, or joining the military to comply with the authorities’ vision of a ‘patriotic citizen’. ”
In March, a US government report listed Burma as among the world’s worst countries for religious freedom, citing incidents of bibles being burnt in predominantly Christian territories.
“One of the most under-reported aspects of Burma’s human rights record has been the regime’s discrimination and persecution of religious minorities and violations of religious freedom,” said Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader, Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The recent sectarian clashes in Arakan state has shed a light on the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority, who are denied the right to citizenship even though many have lived in Burma for generations.
Large swathes of Burmese monks have lent backing to the government’s policy, with hundreds of them pouring onto the streets of Mandalay over the past few days calling for the Rohingya to be expelled from Burma.
“It was very sad to see such kind of actions taken by the monks who have been heavily oppressed and killed in many cases in 2007 during Saffron Revolution,” Soe Aung, a spokesman for Forum for Democracy in Burma, told the Voice of America.
Although the President recently established a 27-member commission to investigate the unrest in Arakan state, CHRO insists that an international mechanism will be necessary to address union-wide grievances.
“As far as we can see there haven’t been enough reforms of key state institutions that would guarantee a fully independent impartial investigation,” said Fleming. “What we’re calling for is an international investigation to the human rights situation throughout Burma and particularly in ethnic areas.”