CHIANG MAI, Thailand, December 8 (CDN) – Civilians in two ethnic minority states with large Christian populations fear their lives will be in danger as skirmishes between rebels and a Burmese junta bent on instilling Buddhist nationalism threaten to escalate into war.
“It is likely that the military junta will carry out a military offensive against ethnic armed groups now that the elections are over,” Nang Mya Naddy, ethnic program coordinator of the Democratic Voice of Burma radio program, told Compass.
Christians fear that full-scale civil war in Burma (also known as Myanmar) could result in either ethnic cleansing or total subjugation of minorities. Persecution of Christians in Burma is part of a wider campaign against ethnic minority tribes to create a uniform society in which the only accepted religion is Buddhism, according to the British daily Telegraph, citing a 2007 government memo circulated in Karen state giving instructions on how to drive Christians out of the state.
Independent media reports suggest that the possibility of a major clash between ethnic armies and government troops is highest in Kachin and Karen states. Burma’s ethnic minorities, who inhabit states along Burma’s border with Thailand, China and India, have been demanding independence or autonomy for decades.
There are an estimated 1.2 million people in Kachin state, of which around 1 million are Christian. About 40 percent of the 3.5 million people in Karen state are estimated to be Christian. The Burmese junta, dominated by an ethnic Burman Buddhist majority, also seems to be preparing for war in the predominantly Buddhist state of Shan.
The junta has blocked trade links and deployed troops in Karen state, where the Karen National Liberation Army has not been offered a truce.
“The refugees from Burma continue to flow into neighboring Thailand as fighting fails to die down in Karen state between Burmese government troops and breakaway forces of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army [DKBA],” reported The Irrawaddy, a Chiang Mai, Thailand-based publication covering Burma and Southeast Asia. “The latest military action was reported early on Monday [Dec. 6] from Myawaddy Township, where the Metta Linn Myaing village was shelled by junta troops. More than a dozen artillery shells hit the area of the village, according to local sources.”
Around 1,200 refugees are living at a border patrol police base in Mahawan area in Tak Province’s Mae Sot district in Thailand, a Thai official told The Irrawaddy.
“Sadly, so far neither side in the recent fighting has shown much regard for the civilians caught in the crossfire,” Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told The Irrawaddy. “The situation in Karen state was further complicated when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into the conflict in support of the DKBA breakaway forces.”
David Takapaw, vice chairman of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy, “We will not stop fighting if they [the Burmese army] insist on trying to deploy in our area.”
The junta perceives all Christians in ethnic minority states as insurgents, according to the pro-democracy Free Burma Rangers (FBR) relief aid group. The Burmese Army attacked a Christian village in Karen state four months ago, according to the FBR, and on July 23 burned all houses and the state’s largest church in Tha Dah Der village.
To intensify its battle for control in ethnic minority states after its Nov. 7 election victory, the Burmese army has blocked sea and land routes to Karen and Kachin states, increased deployment of troops in areas controlled by rebel groups and transported ammunition in large quantities.
In 2008, Burma’s government ordered all armed groups under ceasefires to meld into the Border Guard Forces. Many rebel groups have refused to comply.
Although the election – the first in the last two decades – was held last month and the government released pro-democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi, it is becoming clearer daily that the junta is in no mood to address grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.
While rights groups around the world are calling for national reconciliation, the Burmese junta, whose proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, is likely to have a majority in parliament, is preparing for a military fight with ethnic minority rebels.
“The recent purchase by the State Peace and Development Council [SPDC] of 24 Russian military helicopters, as well as the establishment of new helicopter bases near the Salween River, suggests that the Tatmadaw, the name for the Burmese military, is gearing up for a ‘military solution’ to the ethnic issue,” noted an opinion piece in The Irrawaddy on Nov. 29.
One of the military’s main targets is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The KIA has had a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government since 1994, but “it has recently been broken, and we are waiting to see what will happen next – if we can reconcile or not,” a leader of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand identified only as Shirley told Compass. “The KIA wants reconciliation with the SPDC [State Peace and Development Council, Burma’s junta-controlled regime], but the government hasn’t allowed Kachin political groups to participate in politics or in the recent election.”
Indirect negotiations for peace are underway now, she said, adding that she was unsure if the Kachin will be attacked or not. “The KIA is ready to fight back,” she said.
Media reports indicate that the likelihood of the Burmese regime attacking is greater than chances of it seeking reconciliation.
“The threat to the Kachin Independence Organization [KIO, armed wing of the KIA] has increased manifold with the Burmese military junta dispatching significant quantity of arms to Kachin state, northern Burma,” reported the independent online Kachin News Group (KNG).
The military has also ordered the KIO to close down all its branch liaison offices in northern Burma. Only the main liaison office in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, has been allowed to function, KNG added.
In addition, the junta has provided arms training to workers of an agriculture company it supports, Yuzana Co., “in preparation for civil war with the Kachin Independence Organization,” the news group reported. In October, the military provided “60 Chinese-made M-22 assault rifles, copies of the Russian AK-47” to Yuzana workers in the Hugawng Valley, according to KNG.
The Rangoon-based Yuzana Co. came to the Hugawng Valley in 2006 and “grabbed up about 400,000 acres from the ethnic Kachin people with assistance from the local Burmese military and administrative authorities,” KNG reported. “Since 2006, the company has transported thousands of Burman ethnics from southern Burma to the Hugawng Valley every year.”
Mizzima, a New-Delhi based news organization, reported that the KIO has urged businessmen in the northern Burma stronghold of Laiza to leave, given the high probability of military conflict. A KIO spokesperson told Mizzima that “fighting was likely to break out soon.”
KNG also reported on Dec. 2 that Burma’s military junta “has a secret mission” to spread HIV in Kachin state as part of an ethnic cleansing effort. “Beginning 1990, the junta has systematically dispatched HIV-infected sex workers from the Thai-Burma border to Kachin state, especially to the Hpakant jade mining city,” it reported.
Shirley of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said she was not sure if “ethnic cleansing” was the goal of the Burmese army, but that the junta did want to spread AIDS as well as sell drugs to the Kachin people.
“The SPDC does not allow the expansion of churches and took over church land in certain areas,” she said. “The construction of new churches is not allowed, and the Kachin people have to ask permission to organize religious meetings, which is a detriment to community-building activities since the church is the foundation for the community, with 85 percent of the population being Christians.”
Emulate Sri Lanka?
Christians also fear that the Burmese regime may emulate the Sri Lankan government’s recent war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Rights groups say thousands of civilians were killed in Sri Lanka before its government claimed victory over the areas controlled by the Tamil Tigers.
But Htet Aung, election specialist for The Irrawaddy, told Compass that while the Burmese regime may use Sri Lanka’s military strategy, “the nature of armed conflicts and their historical contexts are different.”
“While Sri Lankan’s government faced LTTE alone, the junta is now facing several armed ethnic groups,” Aung said. “The junta, unlike Sri Lanka’s present government, is facing a strong democratic leadership by Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Tensions in ethnic states are far greater than has been reported, sources said. Shirley added that there are only a few channels of communication in Kachin state, and the suffering of civilians there often goes unreported.
The Burmese regime projects that close to 70 percent of the country’s population is ethnic Burman. Ethnic minorities dispute the claim, saying the figure is inflated to make a case for Burman Buddhist nationalism.
The new constitution, which will come into force with the first session of parliament, was passed through a referendum in May 2008 that was allegedly rigged. It provides for religious freedom but also empowers the military to curb it under various pretexts.
Article 34 states, “Every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” Article 360 (a), however, says this freedom “shall not include any economic, financial, political or other secular activities that may be associated with religious practice,” apparently to bar religious groups from any lobbying or advocacy.
Further, Article 360 (b) goes on to say that the freedom “shall not debar the Union from enacting law for the purpose of public welfare and reform.”
Adds Article 364: “The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden. Moreover, any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this Constitution. A law may be promulgated to punish such activity.”
Furthermore, Article 382 empowers “the Defense Forces personnel or members of the armed forces responsible to carry out peace and security” to “restrict or revoke” fundamental rights.