Burma’s Christians have long faced ongoing and terrible mistreatment at the hands of the country’s militant Buddhist authorities. In fact, since 1999, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has declared Myanmar (also known as Burma) a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) because of its violent practices, lawless abuses, and discriminatory treatment of non-Buddhists. Burma’s regime has used fines, imprisonment, forced conversions, starvation, gang rape, and child abuse to oppress Christians.
But Christians aren’t the only ones who suffer in Burma. Muslims are also viciously persecuted.
In 2017, triggered by a relatively small insurgency, Rohingya Muslims began to face increasing violence and fled by the thousands into neighboring Bangladesh in what many observers have called ethnic cleansing—or even genocide. Still today—three years later—the situation of the Rohingyas continues to fester.
According to USCIRF’s 2020 report, since the violence began—including the clearance operations that Burma’s security forces first launched in October 2016—nearly 725,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to Bangladesh, whose refugee population in Cox’s Bazar (see above image) now totals 1.1 million. One refugee told USCIRF that whereas previously the authorities in Burma’s Rakhine State only restricted Rohingya Muslims’ freedoms, since the October 2016 and August 2017 waves of violence “the authorities rape, burn, and kill them.”
On August 25, USCIRF marked the third anniversary of Burma’s Rohingya crackdown:
Three years after the beginning of the genocidal campaign against the Rohingya people, the Burmese government has done almost nothing to hold the military accountable or make conditions safe for the Rohingya to return to their homes,” USCIRF Commissioner Nadine Maenza stated. “Refugee camps are not a long-term solution for the Rohingya people. The United States and the international community must reinvigorate and catalyze efforts to permit the Rohingya to return to their home in Burma as full citizens.
At the same time, Voice of America reported, “Burmese leaders still aim to eradicate the Rohingya. The Rohingya are being destroyed. The lives of the remaining 600,000 Rohingya in Burma are under house arrest,” said Tun Khin, a leading Rohingya activist. He explained that the United States has always played a leading role in tackling ethnic crimes, and other countries will follow suit if the United States now stands up for the Rohingya.
It was long hoped that a beloved icon of freedom, Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi—who once spent years under house arrest in her Burmese homeland, and whose appeals for peace earned her a Nobel Prize—would speak up now that she serves as “State Counsellor,” Burma’s de facto leader. But tragically, her former international honor has been tarnished.
Arab News has reported widespread international disappointment with Aung San Suu Kyi. She “has so far failed to speak out on the violence, leaving her global reputation in tatters. Rights groups, activists — including many who campaigned for her in the past — and her fellow Nobel laureates Malala Yousafzai and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have condemned her.”
Unfortunately, discrimination against the Rohingya was dramatically aggravated by a militant insurgency within the Rohingya community itself. This insurgency, known as ARSA, had its beginnings far from Southeast Asia. On August 31, 2017, the Chicago Tribune published an AP report about the group’s initial development:
The group was formed last year by Rohingya exiles living in Saudi Arabia, according to the International Crisis Group, which detailed ARSA’s origins in a report last year. It is led by Attullah Abu Amar Jununi, a Pakistani-born Rohingya who grew up in Mecca, and a committee of about 20 Rohingya emigres. ICG says there are indications Jununi and others received militant training in Pakistan and possibly Afghanistan.
The insurgents’ first attacks took place in October 2016, when more than a hundred Rohingya men, armed with various weapons, including knives, slingshots, and rifles, attacked police and killed nine officers. In August 2017, the group struck again, attacking a far larger area, which included Buddhist villages, killing many civilians as well as targeting police. Unsurprisingly, this resulted in a fierce response by the Burmese authorities, leading to the torching of numerous Rohingya villages and the killing, rape, and displacement of thousands.
The ARSA rebels have since declared a “ceasefire.” However, the damage activated by their insurgency has since resulted in the unending flood of displaced Rohingyas who clearly had nothing to do with ARSA terrorism or any other crimes. Nonetheless their plight seems never ending.
And at the same time, Burma’s Christians also continue to be mistreated and abused.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that the four million Christians in Burma make up about 8.2 percent of the mostly Buddhist population. They live in the country’s margins and belong to ethnic minority groups such as the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Karenni, Lahu, and Naga. They experience everything from discrimination to violent abuse.
For example, as USCIRF recently noted:
Beginning in 2018, Burma’s Chinese-backed United Wa State Army (UWSA) has targeted Christians in territory under its control. Under the guise of confronting “religious extremism,” UWSA soldiers interrogated and detained almost 100 pastors; ordered others to leave the region; closed religious schools and churches; destroyed unauthorized churches; banned new church construction; and forcibly recruited Christian students. In late 2018, the UWSA released those detained after they signed a pledge to pray only at home. In December 2019, the UWSA reopened 51 of the more than 100 churches closed with the rest remaining closed.
Tragically for persecuted Christians—and of course for mistreated Rohingyas and other religious minorities in Burma and far beyond—little awaits them but uncertainty, deprivation, and despair. May God have mercy on them all. And may those of us who enjoy religious freedom continue to pray, provide support, and speak out on their behalf.