Long at Odds with the Burmese Military, Ethnic Kachin Brace for the Future
By Gina Goh, Jay Church
03/12/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – As news spread around the world that the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, had taken over the government, analysts began speculating what the coup might mean for trade, the world economy, and international relations. The preservation of democracy in Myanmar became a common theme of discussion around the world, and the reinstatement of the democratically-elected government deposed by the Tatmadaw is now the rallying cry bringing hundreds of thousands of Burmese to the streets in protests all over the country.
But amid all these concerns another issue—one predating the coup by many years—bears focused attention as well. Now that they’re in control of the government, how will the Tatmadaw treat the country’s religious minorities? Today as the Tatmadaw consolidates its power in the capital, one Christian-majority ethnic group in the north has particular reason for concern.
History & Background
The Kachin are a people group spread across southeastern China, northeastern India, and northern Myanmar’s Kachin State. A lack of reliable census data in the region makes it difficult to say exactly how many Kachin live in these three countries, but the vast majority of ethnic Kachin live in Myanmar and have since the 15th or 16th century when they moved south from the Tibetan plateau, through southeastern China, and into what is now modern-day Myanmar.
Tucked away in the mountainous north, the Kachin people found themselves geographically removed and largely politically independent from Yangon, the southern city from which centuries of Burman kings ruled. This relative independence continued under the rule of the British, who administered Kachin areas as part of a separate Frontier Administration rather than part of Burma proper.
The migration of Kachin into modern-day Myanmar was soon followed by the introduction of Christianity to the region. Catholic missionaries arrived in the 17th century while protestant missionaries arrived in the early 19th century, led by Adoniram Judson. By the mid-1900s there were about 400,000 native Christians in Myanmar, many of them Kachin. The Tatmadaw has kept census data a tightly-controlled secret for years, but today it is estimated that between 60% and 90% of Kachin are Christian.
Rise of Tensions
It was in the context of the rapid expansion of Christianity across Myanmar that Kachin State was formed in 1947. While tensions soon rose between the Burman-run central government and various ethnic groups, Kachin State managed to mostly stay out of the conflict until 1961 when Buddhism was declared the state religion.
Kachin State, already majority Christian at this point, did not accept this decree and began a decades-long independence movement that continues to this day. Led by the Kachin Independence Organization and its military wing, the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), the conflict has risen and fallen over the years, with a significant spike in 2011 after a ceasefire between the KIA and the Tatmadaw fell apart.
Violence against Christians
At least 100,000 Kachin civilians have been displaced since the ceasefire was broken in 2011. In its effort to crack down on the independence movement, the Tatmadaw has engaged in a widespread campaign of violence against the Kachin people and, given their distinctly Christian demography, against Christianity itself. In addition to its indiscriminate attacks on the general population, witnesses regularly send reports of the Tatmadaw destroying churches, raping women, and killing innocent civilians.
The Tatmadaw also targets Christian teachers and pastors. Two Kachin teachers, both Christians, were brutally raped and killed in 2015 while volunteering in Kaung Khar village. The Tatmadaw’s 503rd Light Infantry Battalion had set up camp in the village just two days prior, and an army belt was found near the women’s bodies along with numerous boot prints. The Tatmadaw has refused to investigate the crime.
Two Kachin pastors were imprisoned in 2016 after reporting on airstrikes executed by the Tatmadaw. The airstrikes had damaged a Catholic church in the area. The pastors were convicted on charges of unlawful association and defamation and served 15 months under harsh conditions in Lashio Central Prison before being released in 2018.
The Tatmadaw has even sought to suppress dissent outside its borders, suing Reverend Hkalam Samson, the leader of the Kachin Baptist Convention, after he testified regarding Christian persecution in Myanmar at a meeting with then president Donald Trump in Washington, D.C.
Religious Freedom for the Kachin People After the Coup
Over a month has now passed since the Tatmadaw took over Myanmar’s government in the early morning hours of February 1. Since that time, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in protest and, in response, have been shot, beaten, arrested, and even tortured. Dozens of protestors have died, and the violence seems to only be increasing.
For the moment, the Tatmadaw seems to be largely focused on suppressing the protests and solidifying its power in Naypyitaw. Still, that hasn’t stopped it from attacking Kachin Christians—on February 28, the Tatmadaw raided a Kachin Baptist Church in Shan State. They returned again later that day, arresting eleven members of the congregation. They were released a day later, but only after beatings so severe that some of the congregants were unable to speak or hear properly.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s now-deposed State Counsellor, and her National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government served as the only real counterweight to the Tatmadaw and their brutal violence against religious minorities. Her record on religious freedom unfortunately includes her defense of the Tatmadaw before the ICJ when they were brought there for violently persecuting Rohingya Muslims, but she was, nevertheless, a champion for democracy and increased freedom for all before she was deposed in the coup.
With Suu Kyi now under arrest, many believe that the Tatmadaw will refocus its violence on the country’s religious minorities if it is able to quell the pro-democracy protests. It is feared that, with the civilian government out of the way, the country may descend into a state of violence and experience atrocities even worse than before.
The Kachin are particularly vulnerable to the ravages of the Tatmadaw given the extremely high number of internally displaced Kachin persons. The same military that displaced them in the first place now runs the government, squashing any hope they may have had that the NLD would restore their homes and livelihoods. Observers worry that the Tatmadaw could attack or suspend the 170-some camps currently serving the 100,000 displaced Kachin, with horrific humanitarian implications if they do.
Speaking to ICC on the issue of the KIA’s longstanding military conflict with the Tatmadaw, a Kachin Christian studying in the United States said that she was “most concerned about the civil war that is about to break out in northern part of Myanmar… it is unavoidable at this point.” She also expressed her fear for the many internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the region. “I am worried about the IDPs and more IDPs to come due to the armed conflicts.” She believes that Kachin and Shan states will soon be targeted by the Tatmadaw given its long war against the KIA.
The international community must push back against the Tatmadaw and their human rights violations, including their violations of religious freedom. Myanmar is in a season of change, one that could be disastrous for the Burmese people if the Tatmadaw is allowed to retain power.
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