Christian Chin from western Burma are denied religious freedom and face coercion to convert to Buddhism as a result of state policy, according to a new report
The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) released Threats to Our Existence: Persecution of Ethnic Chin Christians in Burma on Wednesday which exposes a decades-long pattern of religious freedom violations and human rights abuses including forced labor and torture which has led thousands of Chin to flee their homeland.
“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.”
Drawn from more than 100 interviews conducted over the past two years, the report reveals violations of the right to freedom of religious assembly, coercion to convert to Buddhism and the destruction of Christian crosses in Chin State.
According to CHRO research, there are 29 Na Ta La (Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training) schools across Burma, primarily targeting ethnic and religious minorities. The schools function outside the mainstream chronically underfunded education system and practice targeted recruitment of impoverished Chin who lack the means to pay for alternative schooling.
Ethnic Chin make up one-third of students at Na Ta La schools where they are prevented from practicing Christianity and instead coerced to convert to Buddhism, primarily via the threat of military conscription. Students are often forced to shave their heads and wear robes of monks or nuns, the CHRO said.
“We were often threatened. The headmaster Aung Myint Tun and the others used to say, ‘If you don’t want to be Buddhist, we can arrest you, we can put you in prison, we can do anything we want to you. You are just like a toy in our hands.’” a 17-year-old who fled a Na Ta La school in Matupi Township told the CHRO. “We were all really insulted by that, and I was scared I would be put in prison. So in fear of that, I ran away from Na Ta La.”
Union Border Affairs Minister Lt-Gen Thein Htay has said, “Subjects on Union spirit is mainly lectured at the training schools … By inculcating Union spirit into them, youth forces equipped with strong Union spirit that could safeguard Our Three Main National Causes at the risk of their lives…”
Burma’s three national causes are “non-disintegration of the Union, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.”
The 2012 US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report includes Burma on its list of “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).
“It’s no coincidence that many of the nations we recommend to be designated as CPCs are among the most dangerous and destabilizing places on earth,” said USCIRF Chairman Leonard Leo. “Nations that trample upon basic rights, including freedom of religion, provide fertile ground for poverty and insecurity, war and terror, and violent, radical movements and activities.”
The other nations included on USCIRF list of CPCs were China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
“The government must end the policies and practices which amount to persecution of Chin Christians,” added Salai Ling. “Thein Sein’s government must then radically overhaul state institutions to protect ethnic and religious minority rights.”