Threats to Survival: Rationalizing Persecutions in Burma
09 March 2011: [CG Note: The former President of Myanmar Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Burma, wrote this article in 2009. The former political prisoner and Princeton-educated Chin pastor, Rev. Dr. Sang Awr is considered one of the most respected leaders and voices for Christians in Burma.
The 70-year-old professor passed away on 16 January 2011 in Rangoon after succumbing to a stomach cancer. In 1972, the lawyer-turned-pastor was jailed for nearly two years, along with over 70 Chin intellectuals by the military regime for submitting a proposal asking for equality, justice and a federal political system for the Union of Burma.
Among many others, his involvements in Christian ministries included serving as the President of Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC), President of Zomi Baptist Convention (ZBC); a professor and Vice Principal of Myanmar Institute of Theology (MIT); and Chairman of Association of Theological Education Publication of Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC).
The following text, which was not published earlier out of security concerns for the author, is a direct translation of the original article written in Hakha dialect by Rev. Dr. Sang Awr, who authored more than 13 books pertaining to the Christian religion.]
Although I am a person coming from a religious background, I would like to offer my thoughts and analysis of the way in which the Burmese regime is ruling the country. This perspective will derive from the point of view of the Chins. As the President of the Myanmar Baptist Convention (MBC), I have often participated in the bi-annual meetings of religious leaders organized by the Minister for Religious Affairs. Included in the meetings are not just Christians, but also Muslim and Hindu religious leaders. But make no mistake. The meetings are not for us to speak our minds, but rather for the authorities to simply tell us what kind of rules we need to follow. Whenever they asked us what we needed to say at the very end of the meeting, we would always raise the issue of the lack of religious freedom [for religious minorities] – the freedom to worship and assemble at religious gatherings; the difficulties in obtaining official permits to build religious buildings; the hardships faced by [Christian] missionaries. To this they would always simply say, “We will see to it.” But in reality, they never addressed our concerns. The fact is that the Minister for Religious Affairs is an army General and that’s exactly how he conducted himself with us in those meetings – the military way. I will give an analysis of the policies and mindset of the ruling Burmese regime vis-à-vis the current situation of the Chins, based on my own personal experiences.
The Burmese Military Regime
Let me first have a look at what the military regime is today. They are very arrogant and acting impervious [to outside pressures]. The word arrogant in Chin refers to a person who has complete disregard for others, and who thinks that he is sufficiently capable in his own right. It seems to me that in the last 50 years that they have been in power, the regime is especially confident these days. They seem particularly confident in thinking that they are able to constrain the non-Burman ethnic groups, as well as the exile opposition groups, and that no world governments would openly and seriously support their cause. They think that their power is assuredly well-entrenched, given the pervading global politics. Than Shwe, it was said, even hung up twice on telephone calls from the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. This just explains how far the regime’s disregard goes, even for the world body. The US and French warships which stood ready to deliver emergency relief aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis were refused anchor in Burmese ports. There are some valid reasons behind this arrogance or over -confidence of the regime.
The regime conducted a national referendum on its new constitution, which it said was approved by more than 90 percent of Burmese citizens. This gave them a sense of confidence that their ability to hold on to power has been sufficiently and assuredly well-entrenched. Some better educated army officers do know deep in their hearts that the results of the referendum did not reflect the true wishes of the people of Burma. But others want to believe that the people really did agree with the military’s vision. Or there may be some in the military who might think that as long as they continue to enjoy special privileges, they should not bother caring about the extreme poverty and suffering of the ordinary people. This is heart-breaking for those who have the slightest sense of sanity.
The regime thinks that the nature of the current global politics stands in its favor. Their line of reason is that as the existing global powers, especially the US and European Union, waned they will be replaced by other friendly powers such as China, India and Russia. And they have their own reasons for that.
The China Factor
Burma and China have maintained friendly relations for decades. Their bilateral relations have recently warmed up. China has vetoed resolutions on Burma whenever they came up for vote at the United Nations Security Council. So has Russia. One of the’ taboo’ questions journalists weren’t allowed to ask in China during the Beijing Olympics was about Burma. And there are reasons behind China’s consistent defense of Burma.
- Burma is a huge economic market for China. The daily trade flows from China through Muse [Northern Shan State of Burma] and other border trade routes generate a huge amount of money. There are no citizens in Burma who don’t use Chinese products today.
- China wants to construct a transnational gas pipeline to tap the oil from Burma’s oil and gas reserve. China currently imports 90 percent of its oil energy supplies from the Middle East. This oil supply has to be transported through the Straits of Malacca near Singapore. China therefore doesn’t feel secure enough in depending on the Middle Eastern oil imports, in the event that it faces military confrontation with the United States. These security and economic concerns can be readily addressed by having a gas pipeline constructed from the abundant oil reserves in the Bay of Bengal via Burma to China. In exchange for China’s protection at the UN Security Council, Burma is giving its northern neighbor access to its untapped natural resources.
- The Burmese regime is well aware of the fact that China will be the next global Super Power. Its rapid economic growth has now put the Communist country almost on a par with the United States economically. Rather than following the Western political model, China has been quietly undergoing internal reforms. The former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once said, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” The logic is that as long as there is economic prosperity in the country, China doesn’t need to emulate the Western model. The regime is looking up to China as a friendly neighbor and an important ally for its own security and protection. The Generals think that as long as China is on their side they will remain untouchable. The Generals might even give ownership of the Coco Islands on the Andaman Sea to China, although what goes on internally between the Burmese regime and the Communist state remains unclear.
The Russia Factor
Russia and China together cast a double veto at the UN Security Council to protect the Burmese regime. Sadly, the current flow of global politics is such that Russia and China will rush to the aid of any country in the world with whom the United States has an unfriendly relationship. They have done so in both Latin America and Africa. The Cold War is over, yet the remnants of its roots are still very much at play. The case of Georgia made that evident. In an event of great importance, signatory countries of the Shanghai Declaration can also assist each other. The Russians are inside Burma with an unknown number of their scientists working on secret projects. Some say there are as many as 1000 Russian Scientists now working in Burma. Some reports say the Russian scientists are encamped at large buildings between Mandalay and Maymyo [Pyin Oo Lwin]. Meanwhile, Russia has been providing scholarships to Burmese to study Nuclear Science in Russia. As many as 900 students have gone to Russia in the year 2008 alone. That scholarship project spans from the year 2000 to 2010. How many Burmese would have gone to Russia during this period is calculable. At least four ethnic Chins were said to have gone to Russia within 2008 for advanced studies, up to the Ph.D level. This relationship with Russia is another source of pride and confidence for the Burmese regime.
The India Factor
The Indians have also entered Burma, obviously not because they care so much about the situation of the Burmese people, but rather because of their own apprehension about the growing Chinese influence. Remember that India and China have pre-existing animosity over territorial disputes. Nowadays, the Indian Army Generals are frequently visiting Burma. They are planning to help Burma construct a transnational highway from Tamu to Kalaymyo, up to Mandalay. This project is in the implementation process as we speak. While the Indian preoccupation is largely about security concerns, they also see this as a tremendous economic opportunity. Burma now imports Indian goods on almost a comparably large scale with China. The regime is well aware that India is a superpower in the making, and is confident that it will enjoy India’s support. The regime has thus cleverly befriended three of the most powerful countries. This gives them the confidence and arrogance to carry on with their ways.
The ASEAN Factor
The Burmese regime’s attitude has changed since it was accepted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). They draw their pride from their membership in the regional inter-governmental body. ASEAN has not been able to provide effective leadership in regional affairs nor have the ASEAN governments been able to intervene in cases of internal strife within its member states. The UN is no different. The Burmese delegates to ASEAN, who are often military generals, regularly attend the ASEAN meetings only to lecture the ASEAN governments. But the ASEAN meetings also provide a perfect opportunity for the regime to meet with governments from other parts of the world. Other than using ASEAN as a protective shield against criticisms from the larger international community, the regime has not gained much from the regional grouping as a whole economically. This is the very reason why the regime has been trying every possible way to have Western economic sanctions on Burma lifted.
Policies of the Burmese Regime
Ethnic minorities in Burma have been exposed to threats against their very existence, due to the regime’s policy that aims to create a country based on “One race and one religion.” Interestingly, however, this policy has never been pronounced in any written form. But the regime’s actions clearly give evidence to their true intentions: to bring the citizens of Burma under one government, under one dominant race, one uniform culture, one language and one religion. However, without giving it careful consideration, this unwritten policy is hard to detect even for those who still live in Burma and who are actually experiencing it. It is even harder to comprehend for those living in exile, in the absence of actual personal experience. This kind of policy is not totally new in this world. The policies and practice of the Roman Empire provide a classic example.
One Religion: I would like to first touch on the State policy with regards to the issue of religion in Burma. The intention of the regime is to unite Burma’s diverse people under one religion [Buddhism]. If this had been the policy of the Buddhist monks, rather than the State’s policy, this would have been understandable given that all religions seek to proselytize their own beliefs. But problems arise when the State uses one particular religion as a tool to achieve its own political ends. In this effort, the regime is using not just monks, but also other agents of the State to restrict, disrupt and report on the activities of [Christian] preachers and missionaries. Let’s have a look at this in the Chin context.
State-sponsored Children’s Homes
Under the guise of promoting children’s welfare, the regime has been building children’s homes in all of the major towns in all the townships, where Chin children from poor family backgrounds and orphans are enrolled and taken care of. Although these homes are financed by the government, Buddhist monks are in charge of running them. Children recruited to join these homes are provided with free education, uniforms and school supplies. Children in these ‘schools’ are then coerced into converting to Buddhism. However, this practice is not done so explicitly in northern Chin State. Children who graduated at high school level from these schools are provided special state scholarship programs for post-secondary studies. Upon completion of their tertiary education, the plan is to recruit them to government services by appointing them to administrative heads of all government departments in the nine Townships of Chin State. This will see Chin Buddhists dominating all important government positions in Chin State. In a nutshell, the regime’s goal is to use the Chins themselves to tell their own people, “You made the mistakes of being Christians.” Many Chin children have now become Buddhists through incentivized conversion. This way, we will soon become like the Karens where the regime was using the division between Buddhist and Christian Karens for its own political gains.
Restriction on Proselytizing of Christianity
The regime has claimed that Christians can freely practice their religion, including proselytizing of Christianity. But the reality is very different. Christians find themselves facing increasing restrictions on their activities. Physical attacks, including beatings and torture of Christian preachers are increasingly common. While existing churches enjoy relatively lesser restrictions, it is extremely difficult to plant new churches, and for Christian missionaries to access and work in areas populated by non-Christian communities. At the same time, we have been witnessing a rapid proliferation of Buddhist pagodas and monasteries across Chin State.
Denial of Promotion in Rank
Christians are now not eligible for promotion beyond the rank of a captain within the Burma Army. No cadets of Christian religious background are allowed to join the Officer Training School [of the Burma Army]. The regime seems to see Christians as being rebels or potential rebels. Christians are no longer eligible to attend both the Military Engineering and Medical Colleges. They are trying to promote Chin Buddhists with the aim of eventually Buddhistizing the whole Chin population. The poor Chin people are left defenseless against the regime’s scheme that is backed by the power of money and political authority.
One Race Policy:
Burma is a Union founded by multi-ethnic groups. As such, the different ethnic groups, by virtue of the very nature of the country’s diverse character, need to enjoy the right to protect and promote their own distinct culture and traditions. The Union flag used to contain 14 equal-sized stars that represent the States and Divisions. But the new flag that was ‘approved’ as part of the new Constitution package contains only a single giant star. In essence, the single big star can be interpreted as a symbolic representation of the assimilation [or intended assimilation] of the different ethnic groups into the dominant Burman ethnic group. The Chins used to have the right to learn their own language in schools. But those days are long gone today. The Christian churches have made their best efforts to provide language programs to the Chin children, but such efforts are ineffective. At the same time, the regime has made Burmese a mandatory language that all students across Burma must learn from kindergarten. This is clear evidence that the regime is pursuing the policy of racial assimilation.
Assimilation through Marriage: Rapid militarization of ethnic areas has meant that Burmese soldiers [largely composed of ethnic Burmans] are present everywhere in the country now. In every place where they are stationed [predominantly ethnic areas], the Burmese soldiers are encouraged to marry the local girls. The intention is to create children of ethnic Burman descent.
The power of authority lies in a single central government. The State government has only minimal [and symbolic] responsibilities. Military officers would also be appointed in the state governments. The intention [according to the 2008 constitution] is to bring all of the people under one centralized government.
The Chin Context
The current situation of the Chin people is such that we are being cornered from every direction, and the way out from that is getting more and more difficult. Comparatively, our ethnic brethren in India [Mizos in India’s northeastern Mizoram State] face little threat to their existence as a people. On the other hand, it is simultaneously not very reassuring to witness the present mindset of our people even in the face of such threats. As with every situation, our people are facing both internal and external enemies.
- The Threats Within/Internal Enemies: The Chins cannot see heart to heart even though we are a relatively small group of people in terms of number. The primary reason for this disunity may be rooted in our dialectical differences. What I saw during my presidency of the Zomi Baptist Convention (ZBC) [the largest Baptist membership organization in Chin State] was our inability to truly love one another. Being able to really work together collectively as Tiddim, Falam, Hakha, and southern Chin State, was quite difficult. We can probably say this is also true with the dynamics within the Chin National Front (CNF) [ethnic Chin armed resistance group]. There are way too many of us that are not hesitant to bring down one another. It was no surprise that Pu E. K Kim Ngin, then regional Chairman [of the Burma Socialist Program Party], was shocked by such levels of antagonism. We could point the finger at the geographical division of Township administration as the source of our disunity. We do not hesitate to devour each other over what few opportunities we are offered. We couldn’t care less about the disintegration of our homeland when we can’t get what we want. Even within the [Baptist] Christian religious setting, for example, the Zotung [a sub-dialectal group in central Chin State] have split into two separate Associations. There is a possibility they might further split into three. The Matus have also split into three separate factions. Even within the Lai communities [Central Chin group], we have witnessed increasing divisions along the lines of sub-dialectal differences. Given this scenario, it is an even more difficult prospect to establish a mutual and respectful relationship amongst the Tiddims, Falams, and those from southern Chin State etc. Rev. Dr. Van Bik [one of the most revered Chin Christian leaders] was said to be very frustrated at this. Unlike our brethren in India [Mizos], we the Chins have no common language that can unify us beyond our shared belief in Christianity. We are now losing what little is left of our language, literature and our identity. We are still yet to see heart to heart, while others are plotting to destroy us as a people. We should always remember that the more disunited we are, the happier those who have imposed their arbitrary rule on our people will be. This is what I call the “Internal enemy.”
- External Threats/Enemies: I have already described at length about the external threats or enemies our people are up against today: The forced assimilation attempts, attempts to coerce us to convert our religion, the various restrictive measures, and finally the attempts to force us into submission under the tight control of one centralized government. Under these circumstances, we have also been facing arbitrary arrest and detention. We are only more vulnerable because of the “internal threats” or because we failed to see heart to heart. Our vulnerability increases even more so when the external threats come armed with the power of weapons, money and political authority. More dangerous is when people get tempted by the lust for privileges that come together with the tactics of the external enemy. As the number of our people [in Chin State] declines, so too has our ability to assist each other in times of hardship. This is my view of the current situation of the Chins. The questions are: What can then be the possible remedy? Should we sway in whatever direction the wind blows? Or should we just simply choose the easy way out and say “what can we do” even if we risk the loss of our identity and disappearance of our people from the face of this earth? These are the most daunting challenges the Chins face today.
- We are at a Critical Point: The Chins are at a critical point in time today. Our ‘enemies within’ are on the increase. Some are now working with the regime’s army to dismantle their own people. The external threats are getting bigger, while a sense of selfishness also grows bigger within the individuals. We have now reached a point where we find ourselves unable to move forward. From exile some are trying different ways, but real change is still not in sight. Yet moving a step backward would only mean falling off the cliff. Meanwhile, poverty and other hardships only deepen in Chin State and more people are leaving their homeland. Our people are at a critical point.
- Migration: It is only human nature to migrate. When one is hungry, it is also human nature to seek a place where he can fill his stomach. The situation in our homeland has pushed many of our people out of the country. But those who have made it out are still trying to make sure that their family members back home do not go hungry. They toil hard in foreign land and remit their hard-earned money to their loved ones in Chin State. We certainly didn’t choose to migrate out of our homeland. I am personally greatly encouraged to witness how much people still love their motherland. A case in point is how our people living abroad quickly and generously responded to the ‘mautam’ [bamboo famine] food crisis in Chin State. But the sobering fact remains: our people are still faced with threats to our existence. What will happen when the generation that still feels that attachment to their homeland passes away? Will the next generations that are born outside of Chin State have the same kind of connection to their motherland as their parents? My friend Roy Medley, who is the General Secretary of the American Baptist Church, once told me that people usually lose their language, culture and roots after about three generations of settling in a new country. Unfortunately, this sounds true to me.
In the biblical context, the word Exodus refers to the mass migration of the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan, their new homeland. But the nature of the Chin exodus is different from that of the Israelites. The nature of our exodus is one in which we left our homeland to settle among people who are much more advanced than us in all aspects. In other words, we move to a foreign land in order to be assimilated into the dominant culture and society of our new-found country. It is not an easy thought if we pay careful attention to our current situation. Sadly, as things currently stand we have little choice. But this also begs the question: how can we get ourselves out of this danger? In saying this, I am not pointing the finger at any particular individuals for the situation we are finding ourselves in. Frankly speaking, I myself am a migrant. I have left my homeland to settle in Rangoon. But the point of the matter is that our circumstances and the nature and pattern of our migration are different from that of other people. What now matters the most is our attitudes towards our homeland and the future survival of our people. How can we struggle out of this dangerous situation? How can we free ourselves from this bondage? I would like to humbly invite all the Chin elders and intellectuals to share their thoughts and to seriously contemplate a way out of our current situation. #