Myanmar’s military has destroyed about 60 churches in the past 18 months and turned a third of them into Buddhist pagodas in northern Kachin state, according to an American pastor who visited the region recently.
“In the last 18 months, they have bombed 60 churches. Of the 60 churches they have bombed, they have put Buddhist pagodas in 20 of those sites to reclaim them. It is a pretty severe thing,” Bob Roberts told The Christian Post, adding, “[To] be clear, most of it is about ethnic cleansing.”
Thomas Muller, analyst at the World Watch Research unit of the charity Open Doors International, said he had not heard any such reports but that it was “entirely possible”.
“The army and radical monks do work side by side,” he said. “The army uses the motive that the country is threatened by outside forces – Muslim, Western or others – and therefore find radical groups like Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly known as Ma Ba Tha) quite handy. Preserving national unity means defending Buddhism as well; this is where they meet.”
During a visit to the UK parliament in 2016, Myanmar’s first Catholic cardinal, Charles Maung Bo, said that “over the decades of armed conflict, the military has turned religion into a tool of oppression.
“In Chin state, for example, crosses have been destroyed and Christians have been forced to construct Buddhist pagodas in their place… At least 66 churches in Kachin state have been destroyed since the conflict reignited in 2011.”
Myanmar’s army unleashed a violent campaign last year against the predominantly Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in Rakhine state, causing around 700,000 people to flee into neighbouring Bangladesh.
And Roberts, the founder of a church in Texas and member of the Faith Coalition to Stop Genocide in Burma, said there were comparisons to be made now in Kachin: “Already, there has been murder, there has been rape; there has been all of these things. It has not yet gotten to the level of the Rohingya. But there is concern that it could, real easy.”
UN special rapporteur for Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, told the UN Human Rights Council in her report on 27 June that there is credible evidence “of violations of human rights, including the widespread and systematic attacks by security forces against the Rohingya community, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity”.
Meanwhile, in Kachin, thousands of lives have been lost and at least 120,000 people have been displaced in a decades-long conflict between the army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Since violence flared up again in March, more than 13,000 people belonging to the predominantly Christian Kachin people have fled their homes, Lee said.
“There are distressing reports that fleeing civilians, including a number of children, were allegedly used by the military as human shields and minesweepers,” she said. “Thousands of villagers were forced to flee, only to be trapped in the forest without assistance, and in some villages affected by hostilities they were reportedly blocked from leaving by the military.”
Most of those displaced have sought shelter either in local churches or in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs). “Nearly every Baptist church — I don’t care if it is little or big, and most of them are not all that large — has between 400 and 2,000 refugees now in Kachin state,” Roberts said.
As the area is hard to reach by aid agencies it is the Kachin Baptist Convention that is doing most of the relief work.
And Lee said she was “deeply concerned to receive reports that the Kachin Baptist Convention, a key provider of support to the displaced Kachin, has halted its activities in non-government controlled areas as a result of being threatened with arrest by the military”.
There is “a tremendous amount of fear that things are about to seep up pretty dramatically”, according to Roberts, who said that, unlike with the Rohingya, the Kachin are not so easily able to flee across the border into China and India due to tighter controls.