Suffering of Karen Christians Intensified by Recent Coup

By Gina Goh, Jay Church
Karen activists join anti-coup protest at the Myanmar military attaché's office in Washington DC on April 24, 2021.

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.

05/12/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – Myanmar’s independence from British rule, formalized in 1948, kickstarted decades of change still being felt at every level of society. Progress has come in fits and starts, but before the Burmese Army overthrew the civilian government in February, Myanmar was widely believed to be well on its way to establishing a stable, functioning democracy. These hopes were dashed by the coup, and since then the military, or Tatmadaw, has responded to pro-democracy protests with brutal violence, killing over 700 and jailing thousands.

As concerning as the suppression of pro-democracy protestors is, another conflict dating back to independence continues to worsen. Exacerbated by the Tatmadaw’s newfound control over the central government and its lack of concern for human rights, this conflict between the Tatmadaw and ethnic militias around the country has continued to claim lives. This includes the eastern Kayin State where the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the armed wing of the Karen National Union, has waged a decades-long war for independence.

History & Background

Kayin State, which was known as Karen State for its majority Karen population before the Tatmadaw changed its name, is located on Myanmar’s eastern border with Thailand. The Karen are ethnically and linguistically diverse. They speak twelve distinct languages and are believed to have settled the Kayin State area before the arrival of the Burmans to modern day Myanmar. Subjected to the rule of various kingdoms throughout their history, the Karen were given some degree of autonomy by the British, who allied militarily with the Karen against the Burman majority, whom the British saw as a threat.

Today, it is estimated that there are about 4 million Karen living in Myanmar, mostly living in Kayin State, though reliable population data is difficult to come by since the Tatmadaw keeps census results a closely-guarded state secret.

Karen was the first ethnic group in Myanmar to accept Christianity when it was introduced to the country in the 1800s by a group of American Baptist missionaries led by Adoniram Judson. Today, it is estimated that 20-30 percent of Karen are Christian, with most of the remainder consisting of Buddhists and animists.

The KNLA’s armed struggle has continued since the end of World War II, making it the world’s longest-running civil war. The rebels seek autonomy for the region and have continued their fight in the face of unimaginable brutality by the Tatmadaw, which often targets women and children. Tens of thousands are reported dead, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced by the conflict.

The Lives of Karen Christians

As with the Kachin, Karen Christians face the double threat of both ethnic and religious persecution. The KNLA’s long war against the Tatmadaw has created a state of heightened tensions between the central government and residents of the region that only worsens the condition of Karen Christians.

The Tatmadaw often targets churches and leverage Christian’s minority status against them in their rhetoric and tactics—Christians are a tiny minority in Burma as a whole and make an easy target for the Tatmadaw’s nationalistic rhetoric. But the persecution does not stop at rhetoric—the Tatmadaw uses mass brutality against its enemies and reports of gang rape, public beheadings, and the decimation of entire villages are all too common in the area.

Patrick Klein, president of a US-based Christian group, once spoke about the atrocities committed by the Tatmadaw against Karen people. “Villages are being surrounded, and rockets are lobbed in. The Myanmar regime then goes in with machine guns and mows down whoever is still alive, and then the evidence is burned. There are reports they are also blockading villages so the people can’t go out and get food; it is also reported that women are being raped and men are being set on fire while they’re alive. And, they’re actually poisoning the water supplies now.”

Benedict Rogers, the East Asia Team Leader of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, witnessed the aftermath of a 2004 Tatmadaw attack near the Moei River. He recounted that the troops had set fire to the homes, looted and destroyed the clinic, burned the crops, and set the church ablaze. According to him, churches are often the first targets in attacks on ethnic villages, while more often than not Buddhist temples are left untouched, for the Tatmadaw cloaks itself in Buddhism and stirs up anti-Christian sentiment.

Karen Christians, suffering with little protection from the ravages of the Tatmadaw, often flee to neighboring Thailand for refuge. Even there, they are not safe—reports have surfaced of the Tatmadaw shelling camps of displaced Karen in Thailand, in a brazen violation of both the refugees’ human rights and Thailand’s sovereignty.

David Eubank, head of Christian aid group Free Burma Rangers, has helped to document the Tatmadaw’s crimes against the Karen people and has worked for years to provide lifesaving aid to civilians in the region and train young rangers to defend themselves.

The Post-Coup Future

The Tatmadaw has been unyielding in their violence against Karen civilians since taking over the government in February and the KNLA has been active in its response ever since. Fighting and shelling in civilian areas such as the Doo Tha Htoo District has been relentless, forcing many Karen Christians to flee into the jungle or across the border into Thailand, leaving behind their farms, homes, and churches.

Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said in March that his country would accept refugees from Myanmar, but Sunai Phasuk, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, reported on the same day that Thai authorities had forced over 2,000 Karen refugees back over the border into where the Tatmadaw had recently engaged in bombings of civilian areas.

The February coup only worsens the situation for the Karen. Though limited in its ability to push back against the Tatmadaw, the democratically-elected civilian government was the only real internal check on the Tatmadaw’s campaign against ethnic minorities. Now that it is deposed, little stands in the way of larger-scale ethnic and religious persecution in Kayin State and elsewhere around the country.

The problem is already a massive one, according to Clara Tunwin, a Karen Christian activist based in Washington, D.C. “Over 20,000 Karen villagers are currently displaced. They need a lot of medical supplies, medical attention, food and shelter,” she told ICC. “Our plea to our brothers and sisters in Christ all around the world is to continue praying for the Karen Christians and other people who are oppressed and attacked by the Burmese military.”

For interviews, please contact Addison Parker: press@persecution.org.

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