Myanmar Christians see opportunity for reform

The recent announcement of Myanmar President Thein Sein's resignation as head of the country's ruling political party seems to be the latest step in a series of political reforms.

(Photo: Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom)Myanmar's President Thein Sein attends the opening ceremony of the 69th Commission Session of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) at the United Nations building in Bangkok April 29, 2013. REUTERS/ (

Thein Sein was elected president in March 2011, after Myanmar's first national election in 20 years.

He had served as prime minister in the four years prior to the election, but his presidency of the country also known as Burma has been enigmatic.

For example, he oversaw the release of hundreds of political prisoners, but he is also an unapologetic member of the military junta that put those people in prison in the first place.

Thein Sein will remain president, but, in keeping with the constitution the state adopted in 2008, he will no longer be involved in party activities.

Some in Burma are wary of Thein Sein's resignation – fearing it may be nothing more than a illusion of reform that will, in fact, maintain the status quo.

But some groups are already seizing what they see as new opportunities in this new political atmosphere.

One such group are the Chins, a majority Christian ethnic group of about 1.5 million primarily residing in western Burma.

Earlier this year, a delegation from the Chin Human Rights Organization met with U.S. Congress members, urging American support for religious freedom to be included in Myanmar's new reforms.

This week, when Thein Sein met with political parties to discuss plans for national reform, the Chin National Party pushed again for religious freedom, not only for Christians but for all non-Buddhist religious minorities.

"Our party demanded the shares of the Religious Affairs Ministry's budget with other religions such as Christian and Islam, not with Buddhism alone," said the party's general secretary, Nge Pee, according to Burmese media reports. "Only then can Myanmar prove that it shows no religious discrimination."

The Chin National Party also urged the government to take responsibility for a fire in Chin state.

In recent months, Myanmar has come under fire for violence against Muslims.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has condemned Myanmar's treatment of its Muslim groups as "ethnic cleansing."

Many Burmese and the government consider the estimated 800,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state to be illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

Most of them have been denied citizenship and the U.N. describes these stateless people as one of the world's most persecuted minorities.

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