Yangon (AsiaNews) – The humanitarian crisis that touches Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State is not the only of its kind in Myanmar. Religious freedom and human rights violations by the military, Buddhist nationalist movements and ethnic Burmese affect also other ethnic minorities in other parts of the country.
All these groups share the same suffering, but have not received the same media coverage or attention by the international community as the Rohingya struggling along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
This is the case of the Kachin (north), Chin (west) and Naga (north-west), ethnic groups with large Christian communities that have been persecuted for decades.
By exploiting the Buddhist roots of the country’s culture, Myanmar’s military regime has for years discriminated against Christians, seen as the expression of a foreign religion contrary to its "one nation, one race, and one religion" policy.
Many of these measures are still in force and anti-Church bias is strong even though the latter has been present in the country for more than 500 years.
In Myanmar all Christian communities are subject to restrictions on land acquisition for religious purposes. Military bureaucratic procedures prevent the release of permits to communities. Just to have a place to worship, some Christians are forced to use private properties or homes.
In predominantly Buddhist areas, especially in the strongholds of Ma Ba Tha's ultra-nationalist monks, it is almost impossible for Christians to gather together. At the same time, the government spends public money to build pagodas and monasteries, part of its policy of promoting and spreading Buddhism.
In December 2016, a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom of the (USCIRF) highlighted some of the worst episodes of intimidation and violence against Christians in the Asian country.
These violations include forced transfers, destruction of cemeteries, attacks on places of worship, and the ongoing campaign of forced conversions and brainwashing, which takes place in schools funded by the government in border regions, particularly in areas inhabited by ethnic Chin and Naga. Another common practice is the unjustified grab by local authorities of resource-rich land.
In Kachin areas, violations of religious freedom are intertwined with the ongoing conflict between armed groups and government forces. The military routinely occupies churches and summons entire congregations for mass interrogations and indiscriminate arrests. Very often the faithful and clergymen are considered allies of the rebels and therefore punished.
Myanmar’s powerful Armed Forces (Tatmadaw) have devastated, damaged, and destroyed many places of worship. With almost total impunity, the former continue to commit serious human rights abuses such as sexual violence inside church compounds and the torture of clergymen, believers and ordinary citizens.
In Kachin, after more than five years of conflict, more than 120,000 people have been forced to flee and live in desperate conditions, waiting to return. As long as the conflict endures, there is no real prospect for internally displaced Kachin to return to a situation of security and dignity.
Religious discrimination is in some cases institutionalised. Kachin, Naga, and Chin Christian public servants and others employed by the government are usually overlooked for promotion in favour of Buddhists.
When Christians hold government positions, they face sanctions if they do not support Buddhist initiatives. In some cases, the authorities take contributions from Christian civil servants’ salaries for Buddhist activities. In the Chin State, government employees are also forced to work on Sundays, without compensation.
Buddhism, though not officially, is considered Myanmar’s state religion. The military, whose power is not subject to the control of civil authority, has stressed the religion’s "special position" and stands as the defender of Burmese culture and tradition.
Over the years, this has led to deep rifts between the country’s various ethno-religious groups. This, in turn, has allowed the Armed Forces to reiterate their power.
With her victory in the November 2015 elections, Myanmar’s Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi began a difficult process of pacification and national reconciliation.