In March the Myanmar government and 16 rebel groups signed a draft ceasefire agreement, ahead of national elections scheduled for November this year. The pact, however, doesn’t contain self-determination provisions that these ethnic groups have demanded.
Myanmar is made up of eight major and eight minor ethnic groups, each of which had hoped for autonomy after gaining independence following World War II. In 1947, the Panglong Agreement, advanced by Aung San, father of current opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, promised all ethnic minorities a place in a new union.
Five months later, Aung San was assassinated, triggering civil war and ethnic rebellion that continues by these groups to this day. Among them are ethnic groups who are majority Christian, including the Kachin and the Chin. Some, such as the Karen, have a sizeable Christian population.
The central Burmese government continues a campaign of oppression against ethnic minorities. Operation World, a Christian missionary organisation, calls Myanmar “a deeply fractured nation on a political and especially ethnic level.” Last week, 700 people fleeing Myanmar and neighbouring Bangladesh were fetched off a sinking boat that was attempting to get them to Indonesia, across the Andaman Sea. Human-rights groups say other boats carrying more migrants are believed to be adrift on the water.
The Myanmar conflict zones span thousands of miles along the country’s borders with Thailand, China and India. Some of the world’s longest-running civil wars continue here. These borderlands are where the majority of Myanmar’s Christians live, often enduring airstrikes, gun attacks and the burning of churches in this Buddhist-majority nation, as Vishal Arora reports in this video.
(WARNING: There is a graphic image of an injured hand within 12″ of the start, so you may prefer to fast forward to 15″)
Narrator: While the government of Burma continues to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire agreement with almost all ethnic rebel groups, its military continues to carry out attacks. The government has also offered too little to rebel groups to end the civil war.
Rescuer, civil war victims: Just today [April 7, 2015], I got reports from our teams that airstrikes came to attack in Kachin, just yesterday. And before that, more airstrikes. And up in northern Shan state … among the Shan and Kokang and the Aung people, there have been un-stopped attacks for the last three months, including airstrikes, helicopter gunships, and in Kachin state also. So you can say that in northern Burma, the fighting is worse than it’s been for years, right now. Now, in southern and central Burma, [there’s] less fighting. I see two things happening at once.
The ethnic groups are negotiating right now and may even sign the first step of the ceasefire. But what is not on the table is the ethnic right to bear arms, the ethnic right to have their own or federal military, or a political settlement of the federal union of Burma. They could not agree on those three points so they put them aside. So even if they sign a ceasefire, they would not have addressed the most difficult issue, which is a political solution for Burma.
Narrator: Among the ethnic rebel groups that are fighting for self-determination are Christian-majority armed groups, especially in Karen state which borders China, in Kachin state which borders Thailand and Chin state along the India border. These Christian rebels say they are attacked for being both separatist and Christian. And it’s not only the rebels, but Christian civilians are also attacked. The Burmese military makes no distinction between civilian residents and rebels: all are seen and treated as insurgents. And all Christian cultural expressions are seen as assertion of rebellion, as they’re against the Buddhist norm. As a result, suffering is what defines the lives of Christian and other civilians.
Naw Lah Say Wah Ku, a Teacher in Karen State: They burn our churches and all our houses.
Rescuer, civil war victims: Well, I think that every dictatorship wants to control the people and sometimes culture becomes a barrier to control other people. So they try to oppress that culture, as they’ve had in Burma. And a religion can be a threat to a dictator, too, as, if you really believe in a positive power higher than you and a power higher than all, a good greater and older than any of us, that’s a threat to anyone who wants to say, “We’re the greatest power; our dictators are the greatest powers, our government is the greatest power.”
So any faith, let’s say a Christian pastor has always been a threat to the government because the Christian pastor will appeal to someone higher than the government, and that’s a threat. And it’s also a threat in the sense of its ultimate morality; to kill and rape and murder can never be justified. And the way Burma army has reacted in the past has been to destroy churches … in conflict areas, destroy churches and burn them or desecrate them. I remember going in one church in the middle of a [rescue] mission. The whole village had been burned down; the church was left, un-burnt. But it had been ransacked, broken, destroyed, and on the outside of the church, it said, “We’re light infantry battalion …12345,” I can’t remember the name, and “we will just scatter you.” So they used this church as a signboard to threaten anybody who comes back, “We’ll destroy you.” And they killed villagers in that village and burned their houses. So in conflict areas, we have seen destruction of hundreds of churches. In the areas where Burma army has firm control in the cities, then the pastors are closely monitored.
Now, right now, there’s been a great easing of restrictions for pastors in cities with government control. So it’s a lot better than it was before.
But still in Chin state, Buddhist monks are brought in and given permission to take land that was not theirs and put in monasteries. So that’s a kind of in and out in largely Christian areas of Chin state, where they are forced to accept monasteries and pagodas, and that’s a violation of their religious freedom.
Karen-Kachin Rescue Team Volunteer: [Even] after the Burma Army signed a ceasefire agreement [with Kachin Independence Organization], Kachin state still has fighting, big fighting. Just one or two months ago, big fighting, like … with jet fighters, airplanes. And I also saw, many villagers had to run, thousands of IDPs [internally displaced people], and they do not have enough supplies. The children have no chance to go to the school to study.
Karen Rescue Mission Team Member: In my first [rescue] mission, I went to Karen State. And I see people run away from their village, as Burma Army comes to their village. If they see [anyone], they kill people, animal or whatever. They take what they want. And also they burn down the village. So people had to flee to the jungles and hide. During the mission, I saw how people made their home … they used to use bamboo to make the floor. But in the jungle, they didn’t have bamboo, so they used this big a tree to make the floor, and sleep. [It was] very cold, as they’d have to run up to over a 6,000-foot mountain. They don’t even have enough clothes. It’s very cold. Some are very sick, but no medicine. People are dying, and hopeless. They don’t know their future. It made me very sad.
Narrator: There are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who are Christian, such as in the Ei Htu Hta camp in Karen state, who now live in houses made of wood and tree leaves. These are people who fled their villages after the Burmese military launched attacks. And they are happier in their camps in the jungles. All they want is to stay away from military posts.
An Old Karen Man in the Camp: I have better living conditions here in the camp. In my village, fear of Burmese army would always loom, and we had to run from one place to another to avoid attacks.
A Karen Woman in the Camp: I’m a nurse, and I want to continue to work for my community here.
Another Karen Woman in the Camp: I studied here in the camp, and I’m a paramedical staff, and I want to become a leader of the community.
Saw Doh Soe, Paramedic in the Camp: We mostly get patients with malaria, diarrhoea and measles.
We only have basic medicines and equipment. Those who come with serious illnesses or require major surgeries, we send them to the medical facility in the Mae La camp [across the border in Thailand].
Narrator: People in such camps are protected by Christian ethnic rebels against the Burmese military. These rebels say they had no option but to take up arms. They say the military attacks civilian villages and wants to assimilate them into the culture practiced by the Burman ethnic majority people who are Buddhist.
Saw Hser Pweh Moo, Karen rebel: I saw Burmese army men persecuting civilians in my village. So I wanted to join the KNDO [Karen National Defense Organization], but I was below 18 years at the time. I waited, and joined the ethnic army once I became an adult.
We believe in Christianity, but we also have to act. So, I, as a Christian, am holding a gun to protect my people. We won’t be able to survive by only believing.
Narrator: No one knows how long the civil war will go on, perhaps for at least a few more years. But the ethnic rebel groups are willing to respond to the government’s efforts to strike a nationwide ceasefire agreement. And rights groups say this is a good sign.
Rescuer, civil war victims: I always have hope in peace agreements. And, I think anytime you can talk, it’s good. And I pray for and encourage all sides, “Keep talking, keep talking. Even if fighting breaks out worse, keep talking.” So I think it’s important, but what I think it comes down to, is the ceasefire … a change in Burma just another tactic, the use of the brain to defeat the ethnics? Or is it a matter of the heart, where you really do want change, you do want reconciliation, you want another way? So far, it looks like it’s of the head. This is just another way to separate, divide up and destroy the ethnic forces and then rule over them, using the ceasefire talks.
I do believe there are some Burma officials in the Burma government for who it’s a matter of the heart and they do want change. But which side will win out, we don’t know.