Coup in Myanmar Follows History of Severe Religious Freedom Violations

Many are concerned about the future of religious freedom in Myanmar.

By Jay Church

02/22/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – When Myanmar’s military staged a coup in the early morning hours of February 1, 2021, the world responded with outrage. Myanmar’s most recent experiment with democracy was still in its early stages, encouraged and supported by the international community. Despite troubling reports of religious persecution and other human rights violations, the international community was generally positive towards Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s State Counsellor and de facto leader.

The military’s thin attempts to justify the takeover by claiming it was a response to fraud in last year’s elections did little to assuage the international community, which had helped to oversee the elections and found little evidence to justify the military’s claims.

The current military junta promises to hold free and open elections in a year, but even if it keeps this promise—which is not a given, considering its disregard for the free and open elections of just a few months ago—there is no doubt that the coup represents a substantial blow to Myanmar’s prospects of a stable, self-sustaining democracy.

Suu Kyi is a Nobel Peace Prize winner and a symbol of Myanmar’s nascent democracy. She has helped to raise Myanmar’s profile on the international stage and was, for years, the country’s principal representative to the rest of the world. She even defended the military against accusations of serious human rights violations before the UN International Court of Justice in 2019. This move raised eyebrows and suggested that the military exercised an outsized influence over her.

Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest and faces spurious criminal charges levied against her by the military. The irony of the military bringing petty criminal charges against her after she defended them before the International Court of Justice should not be lost.

The coup is brazen, even for a military that has nonchalantly disregarded international standards and norms for years. So what does the new military regime mean for the nation’s many religious minority communities?

To answer that question, it is necessary to consider the system before the coup, which was already heavily skewed in favor of the military. For example, the military controlled not only the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Border Affairs but also the Ministry of Home Affairs and the General Administrative Department. The latter regulates the local and regional levels of government.

At the national level, the military reserved a full 25% of seats in parliament for itself in a power-sharing arrangement enshrined in the constitution, which it wrote in 2008. This baked-in representation essentially gives the military veto power over any attempts at constitutional reform, such as an attempt to revoke the military head’s authority to declare a state of national emergency, which Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing did on February 1.

Capitalizing on these formal structures of power, the Burmese Army has waged an internal war against ethnic and religious minorities for years. The military’s violent campaign has most notably targeted the country’s Rohingya Muslims but also entails significant violence against Christians and other minorities.

The UN calls the military’s actions against the Rohingya a genocide—concerning, given the fact that the military now enjoys virtually unhindered power in the country. The Kachin, a Christian-majority ethnic group concentrated in the northern Kachin State, have also experienced significant violence after a ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese Army broke down in 2011.

Despite her very public failure to stand for religious freedom before the International Court of Justice in 2019, Suu Kyi is still viewed favorably by the country’s religious minority communities. Before the coup, she represented the only real counterweight to the military and their brutal violence. She even included a few Christians in her cabinet and promoted greater social acceptance of minority faiths.

In an interview with ICC, Reverend Dr. Zaw Win Aung, a district superintendent in the Burmese Methodist Church, pointed to the way that Suu Kyi’s government worked for broad reform as a positive step for religious freedom and a key ingredient for her success in the recent elections. “This victory came from their continuous efforts to deal with all the ongoing issues,” he said. “They carefully promoted free education for all, which is a good thing to avoid religious conflict in the future.”

In short, while the system in place before the coup was far from favorable towards religious minorities, the military, which was the main force behind the persecution, was at least hampered in its ability to suppress religion. Suu Kyi presented a real, if weak, hindrance to their plans. Now that she is gone from power, it is likely that the persecution will resume once the military has time to focus on that again.

Currently, the military junta is focused on maintaining its grip on power as pro-democracy protests sweep the nation. It has responded to these protests with increasing violence towards protestors in recent days, but the protests are only growing. If the protests are successful, it would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the military in persecuting religion. If they are unsuccessful, it is likely that the persecution will only increase.

Among the protestors are many Christians. For them, preserving democracy is the paramount question. But as Myanmar’s last several years of democracy shows, democratic freedoms themselves are not enough to ensure freedom of religion. To the contrary, Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s foremost champion of democracy, actually championed the military’s defense when it was brought to international court in 2019 on charges of religious persecution.

As the world looks at the situation in Myanmar, it is right to be concerned by the coup’s blatant disregard for democracy. Many analysts have called for swift and targeted sanctions against the military and its leaders. These calls are well-founded. Sanctions are, likely, the most effective tool the international community has to create change in Myanmar short of going to war.

On the topic of sanctions, Benedict Rogers, a senior East Asia analyst at Christian Solidarity Worldwide, states that “there is an urgent need for… targeted sanctions against the Burmese military and their enterprises.” The military executed the coup knowing full well that the international community would disapprove, so statements of condemnation are not enough. “They may respond to pressure, especially if their own interests are impacted, and so the time for such action is now.”

But amid all this attention on preserving democracy in Myanmar, the world would do well to consider other, more basic, freedoms like freedom of religion as well. A return to democracy is important, but it is not enough in and of itself. The international community must keep the broader human rights context in mind when dealing with the Burmese military and ensure that, whatever happens, it will not be allowed to resume its campaign of persecution.

This is the first article in a developing series regarding the impact of Myanmar’s recent military coup on its Christian community and on the progress of religious freedom in the country.

For interviews, please contact Alison Garcia: press@persecution.org.

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