Christians among the Chin ethnic group in western Burma are facing religious persecution as they are coerced into converting to Buddhism as part of a government drive to “Burmanize” the population, an exiled Chin rights group said Wednesday.
Ethnic Chin are facing forced labor, torture, and “other cruel and inhuman treatment” which have forced thousands to flee their homeland, the Thailand-based Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said in a report which drew on more than 100 interviews over the past two years.
“President Thein Sein’s government claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de-facto state religion,” said CHRO Program Director Salai Ling.
“The discriminatory state institutions and ministries of previous military regimes continue to operate in the same way today. Few reforms have reached Chin state.”
Around 500,000 ethnic Chin live in the northwestern area of Chin state in Burma and approximately 90 percent of the ethnic group’s members are Christian.
But the Chin have long faced restrictions on freedom of religion as part of what the CHRO referred to as an “unwritten forced assimilation policy known as ‘Burmanization,’” which seeks to ethnically, culturally, linguistically, and religiously homogenize the ethnic minority areas of the country.
And despite Thein Sein’s recent efforts to form alliances with the ethnic groups that inhabit the remote border regions of Burma—a reversal in policy from the former military regime which largely sought to subdue the country’s minorities—he has allowed the violations of religious freedom to continue, CHRO said.
It charged that “violations” of the right to freedom of religious assembly, “coercion to convert” the Chin to Buddhism—the religion of the majority ethnic Burman population—and the destruction of Christian crosses in the Chin state continue to occur under the new nominally civilian government, which came to power in March last year.
“Burma’s Ministry of Religious Affairs imposes discriminatory regulations on constructing and renovating Christian infrastructure, making it difficult for Chin Christians to exercise freedom of religion,” the report said, adding that since Thein Sein came to power, authorities had destroyed four large crosses in Chin state.
CHRO said that 29 residential “Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training Schools” exist around the country which primarily target ethnic and religious minorities like the Chin. It said some one-third of the schools’ trainees are ethnic Chin.
“Chin students are prevented from practicing Christianity while at the schools and have been coerced to convert to Buddhism, primarily via the threat of military conscription,” the report said.
“Students are often forced to shave their heads and wear monks’ or nuns’ robes.”
CHRO said that economic barriers to mainstream education leave impoverished Chin vulnerable to “targeted recruitment” to the training schools, which are usually free and offer the incentive of a guaranteed government position upon graduation.
The rights group called the schools “a front for a State-sanctioned indoctrination program,” noting that Union Border Affairs Minister Thein Htay had praised the system for creating “youth forces equipped with strong Union Spirit.”
The report cited a 20-year-old Chin woman who fled one of the schools in May last year because she felt that the education was inappropriate, given her Christian belief system.
She said that monks affiliated with the school had traveled to her village accompanied by soldiers and threatened her with forced military conscription if she did not return.
CHRO Advocacy Director Rachel Fleming said that the training schools “facilitate a forced assimilation policy under the guise of development,” appearing to offer a way out of poverty at a high price for Chin students.
“They are given a stark choice between abandoning their identity and converting to Buddhism, or joining the military to comply with the authorities’ vision of a ‘patriotic citizen,’” she said.
End to persecution
In the report, CHRO urged the Burmese government to abolish the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the military-controlled Education and Training Department, which oversees the training schools under the Ministry for Border Affairs.
It also called on the government to reallocate those resources to education and to include ethnic minority languages in the national curriculum.
"The government must end the policies and practices which amount to persecution of Chin Christians,” said CHRO’s Ling.
“Thein Sein's government must then radically overhaul State institutions, to protect ethnic and religious minority rights."
The people of Chin State, located in an isolated and mountainous region, lack road infrastructure and access to basic health care, and are considered highly food-insecure and vulnerable to famine, according to reports.
They said that rapid militarization since 1988 has resulted in widespread human rights violations in the region, with an estimated 75,000 Chin displaced to neighboring India and another 50,000 to Malaysia.
Reported by Joshua Lipes.