Naing Ki, the only Christian in a village of Buddhists, says villagers threw bricks at his house after he converted.
The road to Yaung Laung in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin state winds through cloud-raked mountains, where more than a century ago American missionaries began canvassing the land.
Only 28 households make up this remote village, a three-hour drive from the nearest town of Mindat. Included among those wooden abodes is the house where Naing Ki and his family live, the only Baptists in a village of Chin Buddhists.
That distinction has been difficult for the 28-year-old, whose father founded the village in 1989. Naing Ki had been Buddhist but converted a decade ago after struggling “to find peace of mind” within the dictates of Myanmar’s most widely-followed religion. The conversion was met with hostility from his neighbors.
“They told me that no Christians were allowed in the village and tried to force me to leave,” said Naing Ki, who, fearing retribution from villagers, met with ucanews.com reporters at a spot above Yaung Laung, far away from prying eyes. When he invited a pastor to pray a year after converting, “villagers threw bricks at my house”.
The American Baptist missionary Arthur E Carson began the first wave of proselytizing the largely animist Chin back in 1899. Today around 90 percent of the state, Myanmar’s most impoverished and remote, are Christian. Yaung Laung’s concentration of Buddhists thus makes it an anomaly, and Naing Ki something of a lone wolf.
Amid the coverage of protracted ethno-religious violence in Myanmar over the past year, the tension between its Buddhist and Christian communities has received scant attention.
Although the military has a long and ugly record of attacks on churches and other Christian sites of worship, particularly in Kachin and Karen states, its nefarious presence in Chin state, which the government opened to foreigners only two months ago, has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world. A 2010 investigation by Physicians for Human Rights found evidence of rights violations by the military here that may constitute crimes against humanity, including religious persecution, torture, rape and killings.
More subtle forms of pressure on non-Buddhist communities has also fueled tensions in the region, notably the creation of so-called Na Ta La schools run by the Border Affairs Ministry that attract poor Christian children with offers of free education and meals, and require them to practice Buddhist rituals each day. Pressure from rights groups in recent years has however pushed the government to ease this requirement.
Beyond this, actual violence between civilians in Chin state has been seldom documented.
“The villagers beat my wife and I in 2005 and told us we had no right to stay here,” Naing Ki recalled. He said a Buddhist missionary monk dispatched to the region to counter the Christian missionaries – a practice common to many areas of Chin state – had pressured him to convert back to Buddhism, otherwise he would not be accepted.
Naing Ki has stayed, but he remains persona non grata in the village. Banned from using the communal water pipes and from shopping in village stores, he is forced to make the three-hour journey to Mindat once every few weeks to pick up food supplies. He has slowly developed cordial relations with his immediate neighbor, who often gives him water.
Aside from the instances of violence and discrimination, there is an ominous subtext to Naing Ki’s story. In 2014, Myanmar will conduct its first census in more than two decades. Since his conversion in 2003, local authorities have refused to include the 28-year-old on the family registration list. This means he will not be included in the census.
The plight of Naing Ki goes beyond just a tale of religious persecution. It raises key questions about who does and does not qualify as a Myanmar citizen, an issue that has gained increasing attention with the attacks by Buddhists on Muslims over the past year and the ongoing denial of citizenship for the Muslim Rohingya minority.
That denial of citizenship based on religious or ethnic identity is nothing new in Myanmar, said Matthew Smith, head of Fortify Rights. With it comes “a cascade of other rights violations, including limiting access to employment, education and healthcare, freedom of movement and other livelihood issues”.
Yet often the conflict here takes more nuanced forms. The Chin are believed to have begun their migration southward from the Tibetan plateau in the ninth century, and planted roots in what is now Chin state some 300 years later. Centuries-old claims to land play a major factor in religious tensions.
Sixteen kms beyond Yaung Laung, the village of Yar Taing Kyne stretches along a narrow road cut into a steep mountainside. Here, animists, Baptists, Buddhists and Catholics mingle comparatively harmoniously. But attempts by Baptist elders to build a church last year were met with resistance from members of the Buddhist community, who said the land earmarked for the church belongs to their ancestors. Perceived evangelizing by Baptist leaders adds to the problem.
“Baptists will attempt to convert people not of a strong religion and will then support them materially, which creates disunity and tension,” said U Aung Kyaw, a former village administrator of Yar Taing Kyne. He added that the situation works both ways: Buddhists also should refrain from building monasteries in Christian villages.
The government has done little to tackle the tensions. Indeed following the Buddhist-Muslim violence of the past year, it has stood accused of direct complicity in attacks on Muslim communities in an effort to sow inter-communal hostilities and thus embolden the military, which has felt threatened by the democratic reforms.
“For the last 60 years the state has pushed a homogenous nationalism onto ethnic areas in a number of ways,” said Smith. “It has stifled political and economic development and led to deadly civil war.”
Chin state’s woeful infrastructure added to its remoteness. Poor roads and blocks on the provision of outside aid and the movement of its people has compounded the problems associated with poverty, and has also allowed these animosities to fester. Locals are angry that in a majority Christian state, a government touting its newfound openness has appointed a Buddhist as the minister for religious affairs.
President Thein Sein’s inability to mend age-old divides between Myanmar citizens is one of the key obstacles to democratic transition, and threatens to become the fuel for conflict well into the future. As the likes of Naing Ki know, the problems don’t stop there – come next year, on government books that will long outlast his own lifetime, he will be officially considered an outsider. With violent campaigns underway to distinguish once and for all which religion qualifies someone as Myanmar, millions of others could join him.