Myanmar’s Persecuted Rohingya Christians— Minority of Minorities
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.
04/02/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – Immediately condemned by the international community and now considered a genocide, the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, began the latest in a series of brutal military crackdowns against Rohingya Muslims in August of 2017. The Tatmadaw has persecuted Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims for decades, but the ongoing genocide launched that August is the most intense action to date and has resulted in the displacement of at least 742,000 and the tens of thousands of deaths.
But amid the crisis facing Rohingya Muslims and the international community’s efforts to respond to it , another group has often found itself overlooked: Rohingya Christians.
A small minority within another small minority, Rohingya Christians have long found themselves on the receiving end of persecution not only from the Tatmadaw but from other Rohingya as well. Now, as the Tatmadaw solidifies its grasp on the country after a coup on February 1, Rohingya Christians find themselves in a dangerous position.
History & Background
The Rohingya are an Indo-Aryan ethnic group, part of a pastoralist people that migrated from Central Asia to South Asia in the 2nd century B.C. The vast majority follow a blend of Sunni Islam and Sufism, while a small percentage practices Hinduism and an even smaller part follow Christianity. An estimated one million Rohingya lived in the Buddhist-majority Myanmar, in the western state of Rakhine, before the Tatmadaw’s offensive in 2017—that number has dropped as hundreds of thousands of Rohingya seek refuge in neighboring Bangladesh.
The early history of the Rohingya in Myanmar is a debated subject and one that is complicated by Rakhine State’s location on the border with Bangladesh and its position within the Arakan region, which has experienced centuries of shifting politics. Regardless of exactly when the Rohingya people settled in Myanmar, though, the Tatmadaw has gone to considerable lengths to propagate the nationalist idea that Rohingya do not belong in Myanmar, even going as far as to not recognize the term “Rohingya.”
This idea was enshrined into law in the 1974 Constitution and the Citizen Act of 1982 which lists 135 acceptable “national races” and requires that members of any group not listed provide documentation that their ancestors settled in Myanmar before 1823. The list does not include Rohingya, allowing the government to refuse them citizenship based on their race. This state of affairs renders them stateless and largely unable to access government services like education, healthcare, and even marriage certificates.
Exodus to Bangladesh
Violence broke out in Myanmar’s Rakhine State in August 2017, after a militant group known as the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) claimed responsibility for attacks on police and army posts. In retaliation, Myanmar’s government razed at least 55 villages and waged a brutal campaign of murders, rape, torture, and indiscriminate shelling against the Rohingya, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.
The refugees walked for days through jungles and mountains or took a dangerous marine route to seek shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar district. Among the over 700,000 refugees were approximately 1,500 Rohingya Christians—all living representatives of the harsh impact of Tatmadaw rule on Myanmar’s religious minorities.
Discrimination Against Rohingya Christians
Rohingya Christians face a double threat—first from the Tatmadaw and again from radical Muslims among their Rohingya neighbors. They are often seen as traitors to their people and are consequently rejected by their community. As underprivileged as the Rohingya are in general, Rohingya Christians often face more trouble when they profess their faith including the threat of abduction, harassment, sexual abuse, and the removal of their children from the limited educational opportunities available to other Rohingya.
Much of the violence against Rohingya Christians is very local in nature—neighbors attacking neighbors—but some of it is more organized. Speaking of one such organization, a Rohingya Christian wrote in a letter published through the International Mission Board that his uncle was being pursued by the ARSA.
“He has been running from them for four months.”
The ARSA attacked Rohingya Christian refugees in January 2020. The attack took place in a community of Christian families living in Kutupalong refugee camp, dubbed the world’s largest after the latest influx of the Muslim Rohingya who fled from Myanmar into Bangladesh in 2017. In a follow-up attack on the same camp shortly after, 400 ARSA militants destroyed a church and the 25 Christian homes. One underage girl was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married to one of her captors.
Religious Freedom for the Chin People After the Coup
Due to their location, Rohingya refugees have avoided involvement in the recent unrest following the February 1 coup by the Tatmadaw. Yet, that does not mean that the Rohingya people are not affected by the coup—to the contrary, analysts believe that their situation could worsen as the Tatmadaw solidifies its power over the country and begins operating without a civilian government to hold them back.
But even before this happens, there is a more immediate concern for Rohingya Christians. Speaking on their situation post-coup, the Rohingya Christian Assembly issued a public statement on February 28, 2021 saying that Rohingya believers were finding themselves unable to go out for work due to the unrest and were struggling to survive without income. “They are struggling to survive.”
The international community must support Myanmar’s religious minorities, including Rohingya Christians, by pushing back against the Tatmadaw. Myanmar is in a season of change—one that could prove disastrous for the Burmese people if the Tatmadaw is allowed to keep power.
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