Ethnic Chin in Myanmar Face Uncertain Future Under Military Junta
By Gina Goh, Jay Church
This article is part of a series analyzing the unique challenges facing Myanmar’s Christian population after the coup on February 1, 2021. Click here for more background on the situation and here for a preview of the series.
03/26/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – Every week that passes under military control brings with it more death, destruction, and oppression for the people of Myanmar. Protests erupted around the country almost immediately after the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, overran the capital city of Naypyitaw on February 1 and deposed the democratically-elected government led by Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi.
The new military junta responded to the protests with swift brutality but have, so far, been unable to quell the growing pro-democracy movement despite killing over 300 civilians and wounding or torturing even more. Reports have even emerged of the Tatmadaw attacking medical first responders and preventing ambulances from staging near protests.
The Tatmadaw is targeting protesters today, but the Tatmadaw has been violently oppressing religious and ethnic minorities around Myanmar for years, including the Chin ethnic group concentrated in the western Chin and Rakhine states. Intense fighting there has displaced more than 160,000 in Chin State while an ongoing war between the Arakan Army (AA), an armed resistance group, and the Tatmadaw in Rakhine State has displaced and killed many more.
History & Background
The Chin are a culturally and linguistically diverse people group spread across northeastern India and western Myanmar. Reliable census data is kept a closely guarded secret by the Tatmadaw, but it is known that there is a large concentration of ethnic Chin in Chin State, a Burmese jurisdiction bordering Bangladesh and India, where analysts estimate a population between half and one and a half million. The Chin people are believed to have migrated away from the eastern Salween River Basin border area with China around the 10th century, eventually settling in the Chin Hills area in the 14th or 15th century.
Chin State is extremely mountainous, something that helped it stay relatively autonomous under the rule of successive Burman kings governing the country from the southern capital city of Yangon. This comparative independence was interrupted by the British in the 1870s, but resumed in 1886 when the British signed the Chin Hills Regulation Act, allowing the Chin to largely govern themselves.
Missionaries arrived in the Chin Hills in the late 1880s, led by Baptist missionary Arthur E. Carson and his wife Laura. Their evangelistic efforts gained significant momentum in the early 1900s and today over 90% of Burmese Chin are Christian, with most identifying as Baptists. The prevalence of Christianity among the Chin people and Chin State’s high concentration of ethnic Chin make it the only state where a majority of the population is not Buddhist.
Rise of Tensions
Modern-day Chin State was formed in 1947 when the British began pulling out of Burma. Statehood was formalized in under the Panglong Agreement, an arrangement that was never fully implemented but which laid the groundwork for a federal system in the newly independent Burma. Tensions rose soon after between the Burman-run central government and various ethnic groups around the country, though Chin State managed to stay out of the conflict for the most part until the central authorities began to restrict freedoms and harass pro-democracy activists in 1988.
Several Chin were elected in the 1990 national elections, but they were quickly arrested and their political party, the Chin National League for Democracy, banned from running candidates in future national elections.
Systematic Discrimination Against Chin Christians
As political tensions between Chin State and the central government escalated in the 1990s, the military-led government began to aggressively persecute Chin Christians, cracking down on proselytization, destroying places of worship, and attempting to forcefully convert believers to Buddhism. This campaign of violent “Burmanization,” or forced assimilation, continues unabated to this day and has caused the displacement of over 160,000 Chin from their traditional homeland into India, Malaysia, and Thailand.
Given the prevalence of Christianity among ethnic Chin, it can be difficult to distinguish between religious persecution and attacks motivated by the Tatmadaw’s desire to erase Chin identity altogether. However, even the government-appointed Myanmar National Human Rights Commission has acknowledged the religious nature of the Tatmadaw’s actions, pointing to the destruction of religious symbols, arrest of pastors, and coerced conversions as evidence of systematic persecution.
The Tatmadaw is the leading force behind the persecution of Chin Christians, though radical Buddhist mobs are a significant threat as well. Human rights organizations have long documented the abuses perpetrated by the Tatmadaw and radical mobs, warning that coordinated international action is needed to stop what is now a decades-long record of serious human rights abuses against a vulnerable minority group.
Another significant concern for Chin Christians is the ongoing conflict between the AA, an armed Buddhist independence movement based in Rakhine, and the Tatmadaw. Both sides of the conflict have terrorized Rakhine’s large Chin population with forced labor, rape, torture, and extrajudicial killings. Displaced Chin Christians have no safe place to dwell in Rakhine, forcing many to flee their homeland—something made more difficult by the recent COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Religious Freedom for the Chin People After the Coup
Though the Tatmadaw is largely focused on suppressing the protests at the moment, that preoccupation hasn’t stopped it from raiding Chin churches or attacking pastors. Security forces raided Hakha Baptist Church in the capital city of Chin State on February 27, arresting the pastor and dispersing a multi-denominational prayer service being conducted there at the time. The soldiers conducting the raid used water cannons to dispel the thousands of worshipers gathered that day, according to the Chin Human Rights Organization.
In another episode, in Kalay township in Sagaing Region, Tatmadaw soldiers shot and killed a 25-year old pastor and three other civilians. The incident happened late in the evening of March 17 as the pastor was attempting to rescue his sister, who was trapped by soldiers. The pastor, Cung Lian Ceu, died on the spot. The soldiers have not been prosecuted for their actions in this case or in the case of the raid on Hakha Baptist Church.
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s now-deposed State Counsellor, and her civilian-led government served as the only real counterweight to the Tatmadaw and their brutal violence against religious minorities prior to the coup. With Suu Kyi now under arrest, many believe that the Tatmadaw will turn on Chin Christians and other religious minorities with renewed vigor if it is able to quell the pro-democracy protests.
Further complicating matters into the future is Chin involvement in the nation-wide pro-democracy movement.
“The movement in Chin State is quite unique because pastors and ministers there have joined the protests on the streets, even organizing interdenominational prayer meetings every Friday at eight locations in Hakha,” said Zo Tum Hmun, Director of the Chin Advocacy Committee of the Chin Baptist Churches USA in an interview with ICC. “I am particularly concerned about pastors being arrested in the future."
The international community must push back against the Tatmadaw and their many 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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