02/01/2022 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – It was one year ago today, when the Burmese military (the Tatmadaw) overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government. It was a spectacle that captivated the world as we watched the black SUVs speed toward the parliament complex in the background of a streaming workout lesson. The military moved quickly to detain both President Win Myint and democracy icon Aung Sung Suu Kyi, and to prevent the new members of the National League for Democracy (NLD) from being sworn into power. While Burma is no stranger to ethnic and religious violence from its hardline nationalist military, the nationwide conflict that would follow was less expected, leaving nearly 1,500 dead and almost 400,000 displaced. This coup is once again tearing open the wounds of ethnic and religious violence that the country has tried to close so many times.
In June 2021, ICC released a report, Caught in the Crossfire, which explored many of Myanmar’s Christian groups who are currently under threat from the junta’s campaign across the country. Now, over six months later, we reflect on the impact this conflict has had on three of Myanmar’s largely Christian populations, and what steps have been taken to alleviate their struggle and the struggle of all being affected in Myanmar.
One Year Later
The military coup was met by outrage by the international community and instigated widespread protests and civil disobedience within Myanmar. After protestors took to the streets, they were met with harsh resistance by the new junta’s security forces, which quickly became violent. To defend its supporters, a new opposition government was formed, the National Unity Government (NUG), and with it the Peoples Defense Force (PDF). The newly formed PDF allied itself with many of the country’s ethnic armed groups (EAG), who had experience resisting the military’s aggression against their ethnic territories. Many of these EAGs represent significant Christian populations within this Buddhist nation.
While this current conflict was not instigated to persecute the country’ Christian and ethnic minority populations, Myanmar’s Christians and ethnic minorities have been impacted heavily by the junta’s violent campaign of suppression. In the junta’s attempt to break the pro-democracy movement, they continue to target religious and ethnic minorities in the country’s outer regions who have resisted the junta’s leadership.
This resistance from the ethnic regions of Myanmar comes as no surprise, as the country had been on a tumultuous pathway toward a civilian-led democracy – which has now been derailed. Myanmar’s ethnic regions have pushed for various levels of autonomy since its independence and have regularly been challenged by the Burmese military since the military’s initial coup in 1962 – instability has reigned since. In response to their current resistance to the 2021 coup, the military has targeted these regions through coordinated shelling, pillaging, and burning of homes and churches.
Significant assaults have been conducted in Chin state, particularly around the city of Thantlang. As a non-Bamar and predominantly Christian region, Chin State has long been targets of the military’s ‘Burmanization’ campaigns in the 1990s. This history of conflict has caused scores of Chin people to be displaced to places like Malaysia, Thailand, and India. This history of conflict made it only likely that this would end up a significant front for the regime’s attempt to suppress its opposition.
According to Chin Human Rights Organization, it is estimated that between September 2021 and January 2022, 727 homes and structures have been torched by the junta, including seven churches and a dozen other religious buildings in Thantlang. On January 3rd alone, the Tatmadaw burned more than forty structures in the now abandoned Thantlang, including Gospel Baptist Church and the congregation’s living quarters. Also among the assaults was the burning of the United Pentecostal Church, the church of the Vice President, Henry Van Thio.
Over the past month, the junta has continued to torch the city of Thantlang, leaving many to believe they are looking to clear space for the brigade’s camp, however more obvious is their disregard for anything sacred – this has led them to the killings of many civilians. Tragically among them was Pastor Cung Biak Hum, who was killed by the Tatmadaw after the soldiers shelled at least 19 homes and a government building in Thantlang. At the time of his death, he had come out to help put out the fire for another church member.
Chin State has remained one of the epicenters of the conflict as many Chins have fled the daily fighting between the PDFs and the military. The number of people fleeing the violence has risen dramatically since the fighting began in April.
In Kayah state, home to the Karenni people, there has been increased fighting between local defense forces and the Tatmadaw, particularly around the capital city of Loikaw. The region has seen increased airstrikes and artillery shelling against civilians, displacing almost half of the population of the capital. UN sources estimate that more than 650 houses and civilian structures in Kayah, including churches and schools have been burned or destroyed since May of 2021.
At least 15 parishes in Loikaw Diocese in Kayah state have been severely affected by the increased fighting, while at least seven Catholic churches in the area have been hit by the attacks. It is estimated that 170,000 people have left their homes in Kayah, and aid groups have struggled to support these now displaced persons, many of whom are taking refuge on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand, however still not out of harm’s way.
In Kayah State, we also witnessed one of the military’s most terrible atrocities, the Christmas Eve massacre. Here more than thirty people were burnt alive despite Christian calls for peace over the holiday.
Kachin State represents one of Myanmar’s heavily Christian regions, who has been in and out of conflict with the Burmese regimes for decades. Having been geographically far from Yangon, the Kachin Independent Army resisted the Tatmadaw for years. However, its 2011 ceasefire has since crumbled and over 100,000 Kachins had been displaced from their homes, even before this current conflict started, leaving them vulnerable across the region.
Even as the Tatmadaw’s early focus was around suppressing the protests and solidifying its power in Naypyitaw, it never stopped its attacks on Kachin Christians. As early as February 28, the Tatmadaw raided a Kachin Baptist Church in Shan State, arresting eleven members of the congregation; they were released a day later, but only after severe beatings. Kachin has continued to see the harassment of Christians and pastors as the conflict prolongs, leaving many new internal refugees to seek refuge there and in neighboring Shan state.
How Has the World Responded, and What More is Needed?
International condemnation of this coup came quickly, with many western and regional nations being strong critics. The US has been a vocal critic of Myanmar junta, however like many western states, its ability to provide support has been slow. The Biden Administration was quick to sanction the leaders of the military coup, however the effectiveness was questioned given the disconnect between the US and Burmese economy. Congress has seen multiple bills submitted which would increase the US’ involvement in the conflict, however, only one has been successful – a small provision for a formal briefing tucked into the wider National Defense Authorization Act. This was hardly the robust BURMA Act that so many have been waiting for.
On a more regional approach, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) excluded Myanmar’s military leader from its summit in October. Similarly, the United Nations put the junta’s bid for representation within the UN on hold, denying their legitimacy. While these moves have been strong politically, it is unsure whether they will be effective long term. Cambodian President Hun Sen, current chair of ASEAN, quickly scuttled the ASEAN’s united front, after making the first formal visit to the regime in January.
Given the conflict’s scale and the likelihood that it will be prolonged, the region needs assistance that will have immediate impacts. Humanitarian assistance for those suffering throughout Myanmar and in regional refugee camps is critical. ASEAN and the West must coalesce other nations to find ways to pressure the regime to end their violent campaign and institute a path toward federalism that can better protect the rights of ethnic and religious minorities. The junta’s promise of new elections now seems unlikely, as their violent campaign and conviction of their opposition has tanked their credibility, leaving us convinced that they would avoid a free election.
Finally, we must not allow the reality of those suffering in Myanmar be forgotten as the world’s attention shifts toward new emerging crises. The US congress must continue to carry the torch forward in Washington and create a pathway for support to those robbed of their rights to elect a government of their choice, to freely practice their faith, and to live without fear of a brutal regime.
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