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Myanmar military wages war against Christian ethnic minorities

The world has paid little attention to the military's decades-long targeting of Christians in the beleaguered Southeast Asian country

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: June 21, 2021 10:48 AM GMT

Updated: June 21, 2021 11:02 AM GMT

Myanmar military wages war against Christian ethnic minorities

People take refuge in a jungle area in Demoso, Kayah state, on June 3 after they fled conflict zones where fighting between the Myanmar military and members of the People's Defence Force took place. (Photo: AFP)

Thousands of people have fled their homes and taken refuge at churches and in the jungle as Myanmar’s military conducts air strikes and indiscriminate attacks in Kachin, Kayah, Karen and Chin states — largely Christian areas.

Amid the recent conflict, churches have been raided and shelled and troops stationed in church compounds, while Catholic priests have been arrested and unarmed civilians including Christians have been killed.

At least 175,000 people have been displaced in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Chin and Shan states following the escalation in fighting between the military and ethnic armed groups and the People’s Defence Force (PDF) since March.

PDF units in various regions have taken up homemade rifles and hunting weapons against the military, which has used air strikes and heavy artillery to crush the opposition.

The Southeast Asian nation is descending into political upheaval and widespread civil war following the military coup on Feb. 1 that overthrew the elected civilian government.

The ensuing reign of terror against civilians and pro-democracy protesters has led to at least 872 deaths.

Myanmar has had one of the longest running civil wars in the world since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

The latest military assault on Christians in ethnic regions is not the first time minority Christians have been attacked and targeted. Christians have borne the brunt of the decades-old civil war and faced oppression and persecution at the hands of the military which ruled for more than five decades.

Myanmar has had one of the longest running civil wars in the world since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

While the world has paid much attention to the plight of Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state where they face state-sponsored violence and persecution, ethnic regions with largely Christian populations have become the victims during the world’s forgotten war.

More than 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine into Bangladesh following the military’s crackdown in August 2017.

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In Karen state in southeastern Myanmar, where the majority are Karens who were the first group in the country to accept Christianity in the 19th century, people have faced persecution and rights abuses during nearly 60 years of civil war.

The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU), has waged a war against the military, which has committed atrocities including arbitrary arrests, burning homes, gang rape and extrajudicial killings.

The conflict has led to thousands killed, while more than 100,000 people, mostly Karens, have fled to neighboring Thailand where they remain in camps.

The KNLA, mostly Christians, has long called for self-determination in a federal state. It is estimated to have around 15,000 soldiers.

The world has paid little attention to military atrocities against ethnic Karen, also known as Kayin. Observers say the atrocities amount to war crimes.

The military has also engaged in a widespread campaign of violence against Kachins in predominantly Christian Kachin state, where several churches have been attacked and pastors have been arrested, while they committed rights abuses including arbitrary arrests, killing, torture and rape.

More than 100,000 people in Kachin and Shan state, mostly Christians, have been displaced due to the renewed fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) after the breakdown of a 17-year truce. Internally displaced persons remain in crowded camps as peace remains elusive.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is the political wing of the KIA which remains at war with the military. The KIA has around 4,000 active soldiers, mostly near the Chinese border.

The KIA was formed in response to the broken promises of the 1947 Panglong Agreement as well as anger at president U Nu’s decision to promulgate Buddhism as the state religion in 1961.

Mountainous Chin state in western Myanmar is one of the poorest states in the country due to neglect by the military regime for decades. Over 90 percent of Chins are Christian, with most identifying as Baptists.

Despite the military and CNF signing a ceasefire agreement in 2012, the military has continued to commit rights violations with impunity

Since the 1990s, the military-led government has persecuted Christians in Chin state by cracking down on proselytization, destroying places of worship and attempting to forcefully convert believers to Buddhism.

This campaign of violent “Burmanization,” or forced assimilation, continues unabated and has caused the displacement of over 160,000 Chin from their traditional homeland into India, Malaysia and Thailand, according to an International Christians Concern report on June 16.

The Chin National Army (CNA), the armed wing of the Chin National Front (CNF), was formed in 1988 to fight for self-autonomy but it does not have a strong army like the KIA. It is estimated to have between 150 and 200 soldiers.

Despite the military and CNF signing a ceasefire agreement in 2012, the military has continued to commit rights violations with impunity, including sexual violence, forced recruitment and arbitrary arrest, detention and torture of civilians.

In Paletwa in Chin state, thousands of IDPs including Christians have taken refuge at churches and other makeshift camps following fighting between the military and the Arakan Army since 2015.

Thousands have fled Kayah state seeking refuge in Thailand after fighting broke out between the military and the Karenni Army, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), which was formed in 1957 to fight for independence. The KNPP has between 1,500 and 4,000 soldiers.

The grievances of the country’s minorities reach back seven decades as the rights of ethnic groups have been neglected during the decades-long rule of the Bamar majority’s iron-fisted military.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, reached an agreement giving autonomy to the Kachin, Shan and Chin in 1947 but the deal was never fulfilled. After the 1947 conference, Aung San was assassinated and ethnic groups took up arms against the central government.

Since then ethnic minorities from Myanmar’s seven states have long called for what Aung San agreed on — a system based on federalism and autonomy.

Christians represent a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of its population of 54 million.

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