Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Military Coup Leaves Burma’s Christian Peoples Gravely Imperilled

By Elizabeth Kendal

General elections were held in Burma (Myanmar) on 8 November 2020. There were problems, mostly on account of on-going conflict and massive displacement. However, 95 percent of international observers deemed the process "good" or "very good" and a "democratic success". 

NLD supporters celebrate with poster
of Aung San Suu Kyi .

As soon became clear, Myanmar’s ruling, pro-reform, National League for Democracy (NLD) party had won a majority of seats in parliament, increasing its gains at the expense of the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Consequently, despite being guaranteed 25 percent of seats (as mandated by the 2008 constitution) the Tatmadaw (Burmese military) was faced with the prospect that its days as the real power in Burma were coming to an end. 

Most analysts believe the military started plotting its takeover in January, after talks with the NLD failed and the Generals realised they had lost control. On 26 January, in a press conference in the capital Naypyitaw, military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun laid the foundation for the 1 February coup with his unsubstantiated claim the polls were marred by irregularities and fraud. 

Myanmar’s coup regime cut of old military cloth
By Bertil Lintner, Asia Times Online, 21 Feb 2021 

Make no mistake; for the Tatmadaw, the stakes are high. As Htwe Htwe Thein writes (Asia Times Online, 15 Feb), "For decades the military has amassed wealth by controlling the state bureaucracy and establishing near-monopolies in key sectors. The reform agenda of the civilian-led National League for Democracy government threatened to weaken – albeit gradually over time – this lucrative system of crony capitalism." The Tatmadaw’s ‘conglomerates control businesses and investments in sectors ranging from beer, tobacco and consumables to mines, mills, tourism, property development and telecommunications." Not only had the NLD already taken its first steps towards de-militarising the country, it promised to tackle military domination of key parts of the economy after the 2020 election.

coup leader, commander in chief
Senior General Min Aung Hlaing 
On the morning of Monday 1 February, the Tatmadaw staged its coup; replacing and detaining Burma’s elected leaders and State Ministers, installing themselves in the centre, and declaring a 12-month state of emergency. 

Like many others, Benedict Rogers believes that the personal ambition of coup leader commander in chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing played a big part in his decision to launch the coup. 

Benedict Rogers on the military coup in Myanmar/Burma
YouTube, CSW UK, 22 Feb 2021

Who is Myanmar’s coup leader and what does he want?
Time the world started asking questions about General Min Aung Hlaing
By Nicholas Coppel, Nikkei Asia, 23 February 2021 

If the Tatmadaw thought the masses would meekly comply, they were gravely mistaken. Instead, the coup has triggered a crisis as the people rise as one to resist military rule. By the end of February, at least 20 civilians had been killed and scores wounded and arrested as the Tatmadaw – one of the most greedy, corrupt and violent human rights abusers on the planet – strikes back with deadly force.


Kachin villagers and internally-displaced people
in church in Myitkyina, Myanmar, May 2018.
Source WSJ, Photo: Ye Aung Thu

As Christian charity Open Doors rightly notes, the military takeover in Burma (Myanmar) will greatly "exaggerate existing vulnerabilities for Myanmar’s Christian minority". Christians comprise around six percent of the population; most are Protestant, mainly Baptist (1.7 million, mainly ethnic Karen, Kachin and Chin, the legacy of pioneer missionary Adoniram Judson) – along with some 750,000 Catholics. 

While the crackdown against anti-coup protestors in the major ethnic-Burman and Buddhist cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay is being widely reported by mainstream media, the situation throughout the periphery – in Burma’s ethnic minority states (where most of the country’s Christians live) – remains, as ever, dark. 

Pay attention to what’s happening in Myanmar, Baptist pastors plead.
By Jeff Brumley, Baptist News, 19 Feb 2021

Yet it is in these ethnic minority states that the Tatmadaw has long committed its worst crimes – bombing, burning, strafing of villages; killing, torturing, raping of civilians; plundering, exploiting, trafficking and abusing – all with impunity. 

The inhumane barbarity with which the Tatmadaw commits these crimes is the product of its lust for power, its covetous greed, and its Burman-Buddhist ethnic-religious supremacism (by which it dehumanises its victims). 

Writing for The Diplomat (25 Feb), Stella Naw shines a light on the situation in Kachin State where “there is a longstanding and visible military presence, and soldiers arguably act with greater impunity due to the lack of outside scrutiny.

“This has certainly been the case in the way that soldiers have cracked down on anti-coup protesters in Kachin, who have reported being beaten, shot with rubber bullets and slingshots, and arrested over the last week.”

Naw describes how the junta moved quickly to depose the state’s NLD-appointed State Minister, and replace him with a “Kachin crony” aligned with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). “Kachin analysts predict he will use the chief minister’s position to further enrich himself and his business associates.”

Naw also reports that “On 13 February residents of [the Kachin capital] Myitkyina noticed that the city’s primary source of electricity, the Buga power plant [which is owned by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), a political and armed organisation that the Myanmar military has designated as illegal], had been occupied by several dozen Myanmar soldiers. People did not know why the military had asserted control over the plant, but worried they would shut off their power.”

Furthermore, Naw reports, on two occasions during 2020, coup mastermind and military chief Min Aung Hlaing made official visits to Putao – Kachin State’s northern most town (close to the border with China) – and expressed an interest in developing the remote region. Then, on 29 January 2021, just three days before the coup, “the entire unit of Myitkyina’s regional Infantry Battalion 21 – around 200 men and their family members – was deployed to Putao to be permanently based there.” 

By Stella Naw, The Diplomat, 25 Feb 2021

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has expressed concern that troops are invading towns and severing transport routes, making it even more difficult to get aid to some 100,000 displaced Kachin. 

Burma expert Benedict Rogers commented on 1 March, that among the many images to haunt him, is that of SFX (St Francis Xavier) Sister Nu Thawng in Myitkyina, Kachin State, tearfully knelling before police begging them not to shoot the protestors.

Words are not enough to stop Myanmar’s carnage
Suspension from ASEAN, sanctions and an arms embargo are needed to make the trigger-happy generals think again.
By Benedict Rogers, UCA News, 1 March 2021

Begging for mercy: Sister Nu Thawng in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Feb 2021
image source

In Karen State (around 30 percent Christian) some 5000 Christians are currently displaced in the jungle because the Tatmadaw has destroyed at least 23 villages over the past two months. In a report published on 7 February, David Eubank, founder of the Free Burma Rangers, commented that the Karen feel that “their own lives haven’t changed: they were attacked before the coup and they are being attacked now after the coup.” Karen News reports (mid Feb) that in Karen State, as in Kachin State, the Burmese Army has blocked access to humanitarian aid.


The ousted government has formed the ‘Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [Assembly of the Union: i.e. parliament]’ (CRPH). 

Significantly, as Benedict Rogers writes (UCA News 1 March 2021), the CRPH has appointed, Dr Sasa, an inspirational, highly regarded ethnic Chin and Christian (and long-time friend of Rogers), as its special envoy to the United Nations. 

“Suddenly,” writes Rogers, “seemingly out of nowhere, Sasa is the CRPH’s nominated special envoy to the United Nations. His picture adorns banners across the nation. Protesters throughout Myanmar are saying that he is their only representative. He has been catapulted into national prominence.” 

And as Rogers notes, “That is both exciting and dangerous.”

For more on Dr Sasa and the suffering of the Chin people, see:
11 Sept 2019, YouTube (52:13 mins). 

While Western democracies must rally in support of Burma’s peoples, the only power that wields any influence over the Tatmadaw, is China. 

China has massive interests in Burma and while it does not want its interests or ambitions threatened by reform, neither does it want them threatened by instability. 

Rogers is appealing for “more than words”. 

“We need a global arms embargo,” writes Rogers. “We need targeted sanctions against the military’s enterprises. And we need the UN to accept the legitimate representatives of the people of Myanmar – embodied in the form of Sasa as their envoy, in close collaboration with the very courageous Kyaw Moe Tun, working together. . .” 

As for the Church – the global Church – Rogers would like to hear its voice. “So far,” he writes, “while the voice of the Church in Myanmar has been inspiring, the voice of the Church worldwide in their support has yet to be heard.”


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF) and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).

See www.ElizabethKendal.com