Burma Reforms Offer No Respite for Ethnic Christians
Recent world headlines hailed the induction on May 2 of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi into parliament as the beginning of a new era in Burma, officially known as Myanmar. But for the 150,000 Internally Displaced People (IDP) living in the 4,000 IDP camps in eastern Karen state, life is still filled with the uncertainty of landmine blasts, gun and mortar attacks and the possibility of war between armed insurgents and the Burmese army.
Since the election little has changed for the more than 3 million Christians and other minorities who have endured years of suffering during one of the world’s longest running civil wars. Burmese President Thein Sein, a former military general, has tried to implement political reforms and has reportedly ordered troops to cease offensives in ethnic areas, but senior military officials have not heeded his orders.
The situation is compounded for the non-Burman ethnic groups, including the Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Chin, Mon and Shan, who do not see their land as part of Burma. During British rule, which ended in 1948, these states where ethnic people lived were collectively known as “Frontier Areas” and were administered separately by the British.
“Burma Proper” was, and is, home to ethnic Burmans the majority of whom are Buddhist. Most of Burma’s Christians, predominantly Baptist, are from the ethnic minority groups of Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Chin. According to Compass News, while the struggle is largely a political battle for self-determination, the Burman-Buddhist-dominated Burmese troops are often accused of being harsher on Christian civilians than on their Buddhist counterparts.
Christians are seen as the strength of the Karen National Union (KNU), according to Saw Htee Ler, a rebel leader with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). While a tentative peace agreement was reached in January, Ler observes that, “They seem to be getting ready for major military operations against us in the near future.” On the rebel side, Aw John Nay Moo, a Karen commando from the KNLA’s “Special Force,” said the KNLA was still recruiting and training people. “Peace talks do not mean our struggle is over,” he said. “We need to be ready all the time for a possible clash.” Both Ler and Moo identified themselves as Christians.
Meanwhile many Christians remain fearful. Naw K’nyaw Paw, an executive member of the Karen Women Organization, said many Christians install Buddhist statues and keep Buddhist pictures in their homes to prevent attacks. Amid conflicting media reports on how reforms have impacted ethnic minority states along Burma’s borders, where most Christians live, Compass met the displaced civilians and rebels from the KNLA at an IDP camp on a hill surrounded by landmines.
The 3,000 people in this camp live in a forest area that the Burma army has unofficially designated as a “Black Zone,” an area entirely under the control of rebels. Government troops stationed not too far from the hill can shoot-on-site not only at Karen rebels but also civilians.
Since January’s tentative peace agreement, checkpoints have become less restrictive, according to Paw. But in February, more than 1,100 new refugees, about 450 of them Christian, arrived at the seven refugee camps in Thailand, “which shows there were clashes between the troops and Karen soldiers after the January’s peace agreement,” noted Saw Tu Tu, head of the Karen Refugee Committee.
Father, today we bring before You our brothers and sisters in the ethnic areas of Burma, still under attack even after the January peace talks. We pray Your protection over them, especially those in the “Black Zones.” Let Your peace cast out fear and may Your tenacious love protect them from bitterness or despair. While political peace is fragile and often ineffective, we pray that Your true peace would reign in Burma. In the midst of hopelessness, may Your gospel message go out as a beacon of hope. In the name of Jesus our only true hope, Amen.