Burmese Christian group urges US to help end persecution

(Photo: Reuters / Parivartan Sharma)A young refugee from Myanmar's ethnic Chin minority holds a placard during a protest rally to mark World Refugee Day in New Delhi June 20, 2011. Hundreds of refugees on Monday held a protest to highlight what they said were ongoing problems and the political crisis in Myanmar.

Myanmar has made much progress in human rights since the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, but rights organizations say religious minorities remain persecuted.

A delegation from the Chin Human Rights Organization met this week with members of the U.S. Congress, the State Department and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide and the Chin Human Rights Organization on Saturday called on the international community to put ethnic and religious minority rights higher up the reforms agenda for Myanmar after a week of lobbying in both Brussels and Washington DC.

In Washington the Chin organization discussed its latest report documenting the persecution of ethnic Chin in Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.

The plight of the Chin follows the recent highlighting of persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim group who live near the Bangladesh border.

A stateless minority, the Rohingya are not recognized by either Bangladesh or Myanmar, and thousands of those living in Myanmar have fled to neighboring countries, often in flimsy boats, seeking a better life.

The Chin are predominately Christians, a group that the reports say has been singled out for "dual discrimination on the basis of their religion and ethnicity" since the Burmese military took control of the country in 1947.

Of Myanmar's population of some 56 million people, Buddhists make up about 89 percent, while Christians and Muslims each account for about four percent.

In the foreword of the report, Benedict Rogers, author and East Asia Team Leader at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, writes, "One of them most under-reported aspects of Burma's human rights record has been the regime's discrimination and persecution of religious minorities and violations of religious freedom."

In addition to forced conversions, the Chin have been conscripted to build Buddhist pagodas while their own religious structures have been destroyed. The report also includes the stories of arbitrary arrest, torture and rape.

The report's chief researcher, a Baptist Chin who goes by the nickname "Khaipi," said the government wants to eradicate Christianity.

This is because it is in direct opposition to its plan for national homogeneity - a plan contingent upon ethnic and religious minorities (like the Chin) remaining disjointed and unorganized.

"Before, [the Chin] spoke so many different languages, so many different dialects," Khaipi said. "But when Christianity reached us, it united us. We became like one under God."

The 2010 elections in Myanmar drew criticism from the international community, but since then, the government has received praise for some of its efforts to address human rights issues.

Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, and this month, Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to once again head her opposition party, the National League for Democracy.

But CHRO hopes that as the international community begins reengaging with the Burmese government. It hopes the focus will not be solely on democracy, but that there will also be a push for religious freedom - not only for Christians, Khaipi said, but also for the ethnic Rohingya Muslims and the Rakhine Buddhists.

Khaipi said he hopes Americans will use their voice to petition the U.S. government to hold Myanmar accountable for how ethnic and religious minorities are treated.

"American people are the very first people who brought the Gospel to us," he said. "So please keep standing with us and help us."

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