By Bob Lunt
In November, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) brought six men and women from Burma to meet politicians, journalists and Christian leaders in London and Brussels. These religious leaders and human rights defenders from three ethnic groups shared their stories of Burma’s crisis and pressed for urgent action.
“We see human rights violations by the state and the military as crimes against humanity”, said one. Another explained: “Rape, sexual violence, torture and arbitrary arrest are some of the abuses meted out. The military want to wipe ethnic people out.” The six asked the UK to ensure that justice, human rights and accountability are at the centre of its relationship with Burma.
The country was ruled for over 50 years by military regimes which committed grave violations of human rights. It has also endured over 60 years of civil war between the military and many of the ethnic nationalities who seek autonomy. Religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and Burma’s minorities have suffered severe violations of their human rights, including that of freedom of religion or belief.
At heart is the question of Burma’s identity. Does Burma wish to be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, or a Burman, Buddhist nation which at best tolerates non-Burmans and non-Buddhists, or at worst seeks to repress, restrict and drive them out? In 2011 the military broke a 17-year ceasefire with the mainly Kachin Christian armed resistance, unleashing a major new offensive. In 2012 a campaign against the mainly Muslim Rohingya escalated, resulting in horrific violence in Rakhine State. In 2013 anti-Muslim violence broke out in other places. And in 2016 and 2017, renewed brutality against the Rohingya claimed hundreds of lives. All this despite head of government Aung San Suu Kyi’s expressed desire to confront religious hatred.
The chair of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar said: “The military has systematically targeted civilians, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers. I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale.” His report concludes that senior generals must be investigated for genocide and war crimes.
The genocide against the Rohingya is well known. But non-Rohingya, Christians, and even Buddhists who try to counter militant Buddhist nationalism, face severe danger. Yet the risk the six people took in coming to Europe to share their stories shows the flame of hope still burns.