Obama’s Burma Policy Overlooks Plight of Ethnic Christians

December 3, 2012 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

U.S. President Barack ObamaUSA, November 30, 2012: U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Burma this month gave further legitimacy to a nominally civilian government that has showcased reforms while failing to alleviate the longtime suffering of about three million Christians.

In his Nov. 19 speech at the University of Yangon, Obama stressed on the need for “the freedom to worship” in a nation where Buddhists from the majority Burman ethnic group have dominated for decades. The president addressed marginalization of non-Burmans, about three million of whom are Christian. “No process of reform will succeed without national reconciliation,” he rightly underlined. He also mentioned the ongoing spate of Buddhist-Muslim violence in western Burma that has killed over 180 people and displaced tens of thousands of people.  Obama partly heeded to requests by U.S. groups, including American Baptist Churches USA, and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to promote the rights of non-Burmans in Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

However, many religious freedom advocates differentiate between the freedom of “worship,” which Obama spoke about, and that of religion, which includes the right to “manifest” one’s faith in public and in private. Moreover, his speech sought to merely “encourage” the Burmese regime to address the plight of non-Burmans, after his administration had already eased sanctions despite ongoing human rights violations along that nation’s borders with India, Thailand and China.

The majority of Burma’s Christians live along the borders. It is estimated that more than one million Karen and Karenni people, around one million people from the Chin ethnic group and roughly 900,000 Kachins are Christian. These ethnic groups – and some others – do not see their respective states as part of Burma. The “insurgencies” Obama spoke about in his speech are based on conflicts dating back to British rule. The states where non-Burman ethnic people lived were collectively known as “Frontier Areas,” and were administered separately by the British. On the other hand, “Burma Proper” was home to ethnic Burmans, mostly Buddhist.

After the independence in 1948, Frontier Areas were presumed to be part of the new Union of Burma under the leadership of Prime Minister U Nu, a Burman nationalist, while talks were going on between non-Burman ethnic leaders and their Burman counterparts about conditions under which non-Burmans could join the Union. As a result, civil wars erupted, and continue until today.  A recent 160-page report, entitled ” ‘Threats to Our Existence’: Persecution of Ethnic Chin Christians in Burma,” exposed a decades-long pattern of religious freedom violations that persist today in Chin State, which shares border with India.

Over the past two years, at least 24 incidents were recorded where permission to construct or renovate a church or other Christian building was blocked by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. At least 13 Christian crosses were destroyed, while 15 new Buddhist monasteries were built with forced labor exacted from Chin Christians. More than 40 separate incidents of torture or ill-treatment of Chins took place. And 24 official complaints of violations of religious freedom and other human rights abuses, including rape and extra-judicial killing, were lodged by Chin Christians – and no action was taken by authorities.

In Kachin State, which borders China, Burmese government troops are attacking soldiers of Kachin Independence Army as well as civilians since June last year.

“Despite widespread reports of political reform, Kachin civilians continue to suffer grave human rights abuses…,” wrote Kachin Alliance, a network of Kachin communities and organizations across the United States, in an open letter to Obama prior to his visit. “They continue to commit ethnically motivated war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially our families and friends… Within the course of a year, this ongoing offensive has displaced over 90,000 Kachin civilians, the majority of whom are now living in two dozen camps along the Chinese border. These civilians live with constant fear and uncertainty and in dire need of the most basic human needs.”

In Karen State along Burma’s Thailand border, more than 150,000 people have been internally displaced due to clashes between the Burma Army and Karen rebels, and they live in 4,000 make-shift camps on the hills close to Thailand. According to the Karen Refugee Committee, more than 1,100 new refugees arrived at the seven refugee camps in Thailand in recent months due to fresh clashes between the troops and Karen rebels. This is in addition to the existing 74,000 registered and 53,000 unregistered refugees in those camps.

While the government of Burma is holding peace talks with various rebel groups in Karen and Kachin states, it has increased deployment of personnel and brought in huge supplies as if it was preparing for a military showdown, which can cause massive civilian casualties, ethnic media groups are reporting.  Obama is prematurely trusting Burmese President Thein Sein, who is from the Union Solidarity and Development Party, which won the majority of the seats in the parliamentary election in November 2010, believed to be rigged.

The Obama administration’s efforts to secure United State’s strategic interests in its competition with China for preeminence in Southeast Asia are understandable. However, America’s claim of promoting democracy and human rights in the world must not be reduced to mere rhetoric.

– icc

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