8 Minutes To Read

Have Christians become the next religious target of the Myanmar military after Rohingya Muslims?

8 Minutes To Read
  • English
  • ဗမာစာ
  • Cielo (pseudonym) argues that targeting Christians and the re-emergence of Pyu Saw Htee triggered the military’s motivation to commit atrocities. 

    Photo credit: CJ | The Irrawaddy

    Two years after Myanmar’s 2021 military coup, the country’s situation reflects and highlights its critical situation as a failed state, with massive damage to all systems and new internal instabilities. In the last two years, the escalation of violence across the country—including brutal killings and targeting of unarmed civilians committed by the SAC—only created stronger resistance movements, including armed struggles. This is the case even in Myanmar’s central areas, which have historically been recruiting grounds for the military and home to the military’s biggest supporters. In contrast, significant epicenters of conflict include three key areas: (1) Karenni State, Chin State, and central regions (Sagaing, Magway, Mandalay region), (2) Karen National Union and Kachin Independence Army-controlled areas and (3) Tanintharyi region. According to the data from ISP Myanmar, over 8000 clashes happened after the coup in 190 Townships and 84 townships were burned down and damaged. Over 2 million IDPs have left their homes due to the threat of atrocities and violence.

    Aside from the data, there are concerns about early warning signs of further violence targeting Christians. This includes incidents in epicenters of the conflict—Karenni and Chin State, and Sagaing region—such as the burning of religious buildings, threatening messages sent to religious minority villages, and circulation of religious propaganda from pro-military Telegram channels.

    On the other hand, there are many questions regarding the link between the military’s targets and Christianity in Myanmar. From 1960 to the present, Christianity has been a notable target for the military in conflicts with EROs/EAOs from areas and ethnic groups with significant Christian populations, including the Karen National Union (KNU), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and Chin National Front (CNF). Essentially, this reflects an ideology of the Burmese military, which recognizes itself as the only institution responsible for protecting Bamars and Buddhists from outsiders. For several decades, Christians have been systematically discriminated against in public services, governance bodies, and government institutions. One example is the use of what is called the “C virus” (which means the person will not be promoted to a high-level public service position because of the label “Christian” on their citizenship scrutiny card). Along with Muslims and Hindus, some Christian minorities have also been classified as “mixed blood” by the Ministry of Home Affairs. As an Indian-Burmese/Indian-Burmese Christian, it is very hard to obtain a citizenship scrutiny card due to systemic discrimination against those categorized by the Ministry as “mixed-blood”.

    Predominantly, after the coup, resistance forces with fresh, youth-led leadership emerged in Karenni State and Chin State with increased clashes between resistance and regime forces. After a few months, massive clashes occurred in Karen State, Kachin State, and central areas following the NUG’s announcement of a resistance war on 7 September 2021. The pattern of targeting Christianity, especially through harm to religious buildings and civilians, emerged when the conflict intensified in Karenni State and Chin State in 2021. It was most evident in damage to minority Christian (Bayin gyi) villages in Sagaing continuously in 2022.

    In light of all the brutal killings, arrests, and human rights violations occurring in the country, it is of the utmost importance to question religious-based targeting and the risk of genocide against Christian communities. These are huge concerns for Christian communities at this time, after seeing the patterns and dynamics of SAC’s activities in these targeted areas. In similar circumstances, during the Rohingya genocide, Myanmar and international communities failed to prevent widespread persecution and deaths.

    The dynamic of Christianity and its demographics

    Throughout its history, Christianity has been shaped by the different perspectives of power holders as outsiders and by the legacy of colonization. During Ne Win’s administration, although formally touting freedom of religion, the country was framed as a Bamar-Buddhist state through religious fundamentalism and racial prejudice. Today, Christianity makes up 8.2 percent of the total population. The majority of Christians in Myanmar are people from ethnic groups such as Kachin, Chin, Karen, Karenni (Kayah State), and minority groups such as Lahu, Naga, Portuguese descendants from central areas (Bayin Gyi), Tamil, Telugu, Chinese, and a few Bamars. There are several prominent places in Myanmar where Christianity is rooted, including Kachin State, Karenni State, Karen State, and Chin State, as well as Ayeyarwaddy, Yangon, and Tanintharyi, where Karen Christians live, and Mandalay and Sagaing, Magway, where Bayin Gyi (Portuguese descendants) live. There are large Christian populations in Taungdwingyi township in Magway region, Myebon and Paletwa in Rakhine State, Akha and Lahu Christian communities in Eastern Shan State, Lisu Christians in Mogok township, Naga Christians in Sagaing, and Wa Christians in Wa State. There are a variety of denominations across the country, but Baptists and Roman Catholics make up the majority. In addition to Kachin, Karenni, Chin, and Karen States, Christianity is mixed with many ethnic and religious communities in entire regions, and is systematically discriminated against by all governments to this day as part of the “mixed blood” category alongside Muslims, Hindus, and any other minorities.

    Why Christianity?

    In analyzing the epicenters of conflict and areas of strongest resistance after 2021, the Karenni and Chin States, Sagaing, Magway, and Tanintharyi regions have emerged as key sites. In 2019, Karenni State had a poor experience with the ruling government, and it was very noticeable for all generations. During the period from 2021 to the present, the Karenni Nationalities Defensive Force (KNDF) grew in strength and passion, causing the SAC to lose control in Karenni State. Chin State also started the resistance with the very local weapon of one-shot Tumee rifles, transformed from hunting tools to resistance weapons, and this gave the Sagaing region a means to fight back against the brutal killings by SAC. Sagaing and Magway regions share similar backgrounds as traditional military recruitment grounds and sites for weapons production. Tanintharyi region is very prominent in resistance movements but rarely highlighted due to the deployment of multiple different EROs/EAOs in those areas. Highlighting the significance of the emerging resistance groups, Karenni State and Chin State became the biggest target of SAC in 2021. During the clashes, military operations targeted civilians, houses, villages, crops, and religious buildings to weaken the people’s support for resistance forces. Although religious-based targeting was less obvious in Karenni and Chin States, where the majority of the population is Christian, it became apparent when the Christian-majority villages became the targets of strikes and arson in the last six months, especially in Shwebo and Ye U townships of Sagaing region, where Christians are the minority.

    In Sagaing region, violence has been perpetrated not only in Christian communities but also in Buddhist communities that have resisted the junta. However, the clues left by the military personnel who burned down the villages proved that one of their motivations was to persecute Christians in Sagaing. For example, soldiers wrote on the walls of a Christian village from Ye U township, “Get out from Myanmar, motherfucker Kalars, otherwise, we will kill and genocide you all.” Terms like “Kalar” have been used to discriminate against Muslims and Hindus by fundamentalists and ultra-nationalists. Recently, that Bayin gyi village (Chan Thar) from Ye U township, Sagaing region and its church were burned to the ground.

    Military approaches and the motivation for atrocities

    In recent decades, the Burmese military has utilized familiar tactics of religious-based discrimination. A crucial factor in this has been the involvement of Buddhist fundamentalists in the intensification of these tactics, particularly since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won the 2012 by-election. The 969 anti-Muslim movement, which also emerged at this time, was responsible for instigating communal violence and mass killings, including in Rakhine, Meikhtila, Lashio, and Mandalay. With the backing of the military and the military-affiliated political party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the 969 movement evolved into the “Association for the Protection of Race and Religion,” known by its Burmese acronym Ma Ba Tha. This group was led figures such as Sitagu and YwaMa Sayadaw, Wirathu, and other charismatic and widely-revered monks and their followers. Additionally, monks like Ashin Kawi Daza from Karen State, together with Mying Gee Nu Sayadaw, were responsible for dividing the Karen National Union (KNU) and forming the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Army) under the guise of religion. Ma Ba Tha served as one of the biggest socio-political organizations of influence, creating anti-Muslim narratives and legitimizing structural discrimination in government.

    Ma Ba Tha played a significant role in the anti-Muslim campaigns seen in Myanmar, as well as within the Thein Sein government, which held power until 2015. This administration and its supporters were also the main instigators of the Rohingya genocide in Rakhine State. Their supporters have been actively targeting the National League for Democracy and Muslims since 2012 and have become staunch supporters of the military junta in 2021. During the period of the Rohingya genocide, Ma Ba Tha provided both physical and moral support to the military, even receiving backing from influential Buddhist monks. For instance, Sitagu justified and encouraged military personnel to kill non-Buddhists, especially during the Rohingya genocide, as he believed “killing non-Buddhists is not a sin and not the pathway to hell”.

    In contrast, the Burmese military has been using the idea of Bamar-Buddhist supremacy to assert its authority during conflicts with ethnic armed organizations such as the Karen National Union, the Chin National Front, and the Kachin Independence Army in the past. Currently, pro-military propaganda groups are creating a narrative that ERO/EAOs (ethnic and religious organizations/armies) such as KNU, KIA, KNPP, and CNF, which have significant Christian population bases, are supporting The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), National Unity Government (NUG), and National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) to facilitate Western interference and destabilize the country.

    Given this context, it is important to examine the motivations of military personnel who are committing atrocities even in areas where they have been defeated. A deeper understanding of these issues can be gained through comprehensive and in-depth interviews with local stakeholders in active conflict areas.

    Armed clashes in Karenni and Chin State is unique, as these are areas where ERO/EAOs are deployed and well-organized armed groups such as Karenni Nationalities Defense Force( KNDF) and Chinland Defence Force (CDF), are fighting against the military. However, the dynamics are more complicated in Sagaing region, where the numbers of non-state actors are much more numerous. They can be broadly divided into two groups: pro-military groups and PDFs (People’s Defense Forces) who are against the military. Pro-military groups were supported the USDP party and Ma Ba Tha, and now they are a fully equipped militia group called “Pyu Saw Htee” trained and armed by the military.

    Ultra-nationalists and fundamentalists in the region are now armed and motivated to target not only the pro-NLD civilians but also religious minorities, some of whom support the PDFs in their respective areas, and some who do not. However, it is important to note that the Ma Ba Tha organization is only for the anti-Muslim movement, based on past experiences. In other words, Pyu Saw Htee’s motivation is still ongoing due to its growing number. Meanwhile, the concerns of the Christian community are still overlooked due to the sensitivities of being a double minority in those areas (a minority religion in the country and a numerical minority in Sagaing).

    Indeed, this tactic of divide and rule is a common strategy employed by authoritarian regimes to maintain control over the population. By creating divisions among different groups and manipulating their leadership, the regime can prevent them from uniting and potentially challenging their authority. In the case of the Christian communities in Myanmar, this tactic has been used to prevent them from speaking out against the violence and persecution they have been facing. This further highlights the need for unity and resilience among the Christian communities in the face of these challenges.

    The escalation of the violence in central areas is expected to further intensify after the announcement of martial law in a total of 44 townships in 2023, as well as after the planned military-manipulated election. With that intensity, it is possible that religious-based targeting will grow in similar ways as seen in 2017 in Rakhine.

    It is essential to recognize communities’ resilience and unity in the face of crisis. However, it is also crucial to acknowledge that this does not excuse or justify the targeting and violence against religious minorities by the military and Pyu Saw Htees. The protection of human rights, including freedom of religion, is a fundamental principle that any authority must uphold. The international community must monitor and hold accountable those responsible for such atrocities, and efforts must be made to promote peace, stability, and inclusivity in the region.

    In conclusion, the Burmese military adheres to Buddhist-Bamar supremacy approaches and targets religious minorities as part of their military strategy in all conflicts. They employ the divide and rule strategy alongside systematic and structurally-based violence. As of 2021, the military is utilizing ultra-nationalists and Pyu Saw Htees during military operations and deployment, which raises concerns for religious minorities in Christian-majority areas and predominantly in central areas where minorities are located. There are no broader studies or deep analyses on Pyu Saw Htees and their capabilities in Sagaing, Magway, and Mandalay, particularly regarding their motivation to target civilians.

    However, it is concerning whether the documented damage to religious buildings and threatening messages to civilians in Karenni and Chin States and the Sagaing region – three epicenters of the conflict – could be an early warning sign of targeted killings against Christians.

    Cielo (pseudonym) is a political and conflict analyst and an expert on topics of peace, youth, security, and minority issues.

    Stay in the loop.

    Subscribe with your email to receive the latest updates from Tea Circle.