1.6 Million Kachin Christians in Myanmar Trapped as Targets in Genocidal War

August 3, 2018 by David Wright in Stories of Persecution

Amid an international outcry over atrocities committed by government forces against the RohingyaMore Muslim minority in Western Myanmar, roughly 1.6 million Christians in the country’s northern region say they are being targeted as well.

It has been called “a forgotten war” and is increasingly referred to as flat-out genocide of Christians in Kachin state–because they choose to follow Jesus instead of Buddhism. 

More Than 400 Villages and 300 Churches Destroyed

Far from the blackened hills and scorched jungles of Rakhine, where the Rohingya were sent screaming from their settlements last year as military forces torched their homes, lies Kachin state, a mountainous region bordering China and India, rich with amber and jade.

The Kachin once traded their natural resources with neighboring countries for cash, food, textiles. Now, they trade for guns.

Representatives of the Kachin Independence Army told Sky News earlier this year that the Tamadaw, the Myanmar military, has been targeting the Kachin for years. And while the conflict is as complicated as it is violent, some believe that the government is trying to wipe them out because roughly 95 percent are Christian.

According to The Crux, the Myanmar military has burned more than 400 villages and 300 churches in Kachin, displacing an estimated 130,000 people over the past seven years. The Christian Post reports more than 7,000 people have fled their homes since April, when the conflict escalated.

For Tang Seng, whose story is described in an article featured in The Guardian, each of those numbers is a person around him. When he heard gunshots ring out dangerously close to his village, his grandmother begged him to kill her. Instead, he carried her on his back all the way to a refugee camp–marking the fifth time she has had to flee from her home due to conflict.

San Htoi, a representative of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, told The Guardian that she feels the conflict has gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. She said officials from the United Nations Security Council who recently visited Myanmar came and went without any knowledge of the plight of the Kachin.

“It is an invisible war,” she said.

Targeting churches to Shatter Hope 

Myanmar, which is a predominantly Buddhist nation, is #24 on the Open Doors 2018 World Watch List. In predominantly Christian states like Kachin State–as well as Karen State and Northern Shan–even well-established historical churches experience attacks. In some instances around the country, Buddhist monks have invaded church properties and built Buddhist shrines on church premises, according to information gathered by Open Doors.

In some instances around the country, Buddhist monks have invaded church properties and built Buddhist shrines on church premises. Pictured here: Uppatasanti Pagoda.

An anonymous local source told World Watch Monitor that churches in Kachin “are doing their best to accommodate [those] fleeing from the warzones,” and are donating food and resources despite skyrocketing prices.

For Kachin residents displaced by fighting, churches are a place of refuge and safety amid the turmoil of a violent conflict–but for military forces, churches are prime locations for attack. Sut Nau Ndayu, the president of the Kachin National Organization USA, told The Crux that the Tamadaw targets churches because they are “the core of the community,” and that by destroying them, the soldiers are shattering the people’s hope.

Beyond religion, David Baulk, a Myanmar human rights specialist, told The Guardian that he believes the violence is all part of the government’s “peace process”–which he said is “dictated by the Myanmar military at the barrel of a gun.”

“It’s the violent pacification of ethnic nationalities,” he said.

Who Are the Kachin?

Out of the eight major ethnic-nationalities in Myanmar, the Kachin tribe is the only one that has embraced Christianity. Some 90 percent of the Kachin are believers.

The gospel spread among the Kachin in the 19th century, due to the work of Western missionaries. For decades, their religious identity within a state-sanctioned Buddhist context has caused them to endure forced labor, rape, and violence at the hands of the Tatmadaw. Countless times, the Kachin people have been abused and pressured to recant their Christian faith.

When Prime Minister U Nu of Myanmar declared Theravada Buddhism the state religion in the 1960s, the Tatmadaw began trampling on the Kachin Christians’ right to worship. Thousands of Kachin took up arms in protest. The Burmese government still views them as agents of the West, deviants to the country’s goal of Buddhist unification.

Despite the end of military rule and the Burmese government’s transition to a democracy in 2011, the Kachin remain overlooked–deprived of many modern conveniences, and still victimized for being a religious minority.

In October 2017, Muan,* a local pastor shared with Open Doors, “Recently, the officials built a Buddhist temple beside our church. We were forced to contribute stones to build it. Officially, we are never allowed to build a church. We must resort to bribing local officials.”

All citizens are required to attend mandatory village meetings that conflict with their Sunday worship services. They believe that it is an attempt by the government to distract church members and continually decrease church attendance.

“From my village, it takes two days to walk to the public meeting,” a pastor shared. “It’s difficult, but we’re afraid of what might happen if we don’t go. Everyone is afraid of not going because we might receive a red mark on our government papers. Those papers are our lifeline.”

The Kachin State is also the poorest region in Myanmar. According to UNICEF, 73 percent of Kachin State residents live below the poverty line.

“Extreme poverty is a major problem in our area,” says another pastor. “Poverty drives mothers to marry off their daughters to insurgents who are, of course, not believers.”

U.S. Pastor ‘very concerned’ about conflict

Pastor Bob Roberts of Northwood Church in Texas recently called Christians to pray over the conflict and get involved in any way they can.

Roberts, a member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma, told CBN in a video interview that he, too, came to Myanmar and left without knowing about the Kachin conflict.

“I’m sorry to say I didn’t know that much about the Kachin,” he said. “So I went… I was frankly pretty alarmed by what I saw.”

Roberts said what he saw in Kachin was similar to the harrowing scenes he saw in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where thousands of Rohingya have fled genocide at the hands of the Tamadaw.

“The same units that were doing all the military destruction down in the Rakhine state, they’ve moved those up to the Kachin state,” Roberts said. “The problem is when you radicalize and you create such violence among soldiers who have been raping and murdering, you don’t just turn that switch off.”

While the Myanmar government views the Kachin Independence Army as a terrorist organization, Roberts described the group as a mostly “defensive organization,” since the government has done most of the attacking.

According to The Christian Post, Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar military honored a ceasefire until 2011, when it collapsed, and the fighting has raged ever since. During negotiations of a ceasefire brokered by the government and other rebel groups, the KIA refused to yield until the government stops bombing Kachin villages, according to The Guardian. For now, the Kachin are trapped by a government blockade, and with a displaced population of civilians and limited firepower, there is no telling how long they will hold out.

“I’m very concerned about what I see taking place,” Roberts said. “I think now is the time to respond to it… Talk to your congressman and your senator… pray.”

In the meantime, the Kachin continue staving off government forces and begging the world to hear their voice.

When Tang Seng and his grandmother reached the refugee camp and settled in for the long, slow process of piecing their lives back together, the elderly woman mirrored the reaction of the world to the plight of the Kachin:

For two days, she was completely silent.

Praying With Kachin Christians

Open Doors continues to reach out to the Kachin tribe; reminding them that God is sovereign despite persecution and poverty, and, when possible, training them in areas such as marriage and family life, biblical discipleship, church growth and administration, biblical stewardship, livelihood and financial literacy. Open Doors works to assure them that believers around the world love, remember and pray for them.

*Names changed for security reasons.

Photo credits: Burma Link, WorldWatchMonitor.org

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