Myanmar’s Indian and Chinese Christians Facing Systematic Discrimination
By Gina Goh and 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.
06/02/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – Home to at least 135 ethnic groups, Myanmar is known for its diversity. While some of the larger groups are concentrated in geographic regions or in states and enjoy some degree of power, others are more spread out and enjoy less autonomy. A subgroup within one of these latter groups are ethnic Indian and Chinese Christians who face the significant challenge of not only being part of a small ethnic minority but also of an unpopular religion in a country that is nearly 90% Buddhist.
Indians and Chinese in Burma face systemic government discrimination, including difficulty obtaining national identification cards and marriage licenses. It is common for them to wait years before receiving proper documentation—an unfortunate reality that makes it difficult for them to participate fully in society.
Ethnic and religious minorities across Myanmar have good reason to fear that their condition will worsen as the Burmese military, or Tatmadaw, attempts to solidify its grasp on the government after the February 1 coup.
History & Background
After Myanmar gained independence from Britain in 1948, the Burmese government began working on integrating the various ethnic groups into one nation. But rather than take its rich diversity into account, the central government chose to build the new government around the identity, culture, and Buddhist religion of the ethnic Burman majority. This decision led to decades of violence and conflict that continues to the present day in the form of large, well-organized, armed ethnic militias fighting for independence from the central government.
It is estimated that about 3% of Myanmar’s population is of Chinese origin and that about 2% is Indian, though exact numbers are difficult to obtain given the Tatmadaw’s close control of census data. Out of a total population of about 57 million in Myanmar, that means there are about 2.8 million Indian and Chinese. Of the approximately 2 million Chinese in Myanmar, the Chinese Christian Training Resource Center estimates that only 15,000, or 0.75%, are Christians—a tiny minority in an already vulnerable population.
Adding to their troubles, much of Myanmar’s Indian and Chinese population migrated to the country while it was under British rule and are thus considered alien minorities by the current government which only grants “indigenous minority” status to ethnic groups which were established in the country before British rule.
According to the US Department of State, the Burmese government requires citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards. These cards allow the holders to access various government services and serve as proof of legal status in the country. Problematically, though, these cards typically indicate the bearer’s religious affiliation and identity and other government processes, including passport applications require, religious identification as well.
The requirement that citizens reveal their religious identity creates a great deal of room for discrimination against religious minorities. Religious minorities are often made to wait exorbitant amounts of time before being issued their identity cards and the Department of State reported in 2020 that some Muslims were even forced to indicate that they were foreigners after identifying as Muslims. Similar issues confront Christian minorities.
The discrimination faced by Indian and Chinese Christians were evident during a November 2015 election in which they were banned from voting. Hundreds of thousands of voters with temporary identity cards were disenfranchised by a discriminatory election rule. The action mostly targeted Rohingya Muslims in western Burma, but it impacted Indian and Chinese around the country as well.
Asked earlier this year about the challenges facing ethnic Indian Christians in Myanmar, pastor Johnson—an ethnic Indian—pointed to the issue of identity cards as one of the major practical challenges. “It is quite difficult to obtain the National Registration Card. There are a lot of restrictions regarding different ethnicities and religions,” he told ICC. “There should be a lot more flexibility.”
Another issue is the Religious Conversion law, which regulates religious identity and makes it difficult for an individual to change his or her religion. “As long as no one is pressured to convert to another religion, this right should be granted to every individual. In my opinion, religious conversion is not a concern of the government,” said Pastor Johnson.
In the area of family law, Johnson pointed to the Interfaith Marriage Law which targets specific groups with certain religious backgrounds and limits their ability to marry members of other groups. ICC was made aware of one case in which an interracial couple—an ethnic Indian pastor and his Karen wife—faced a months-long ordeal when trying to register their daughter’s birth. The process usually takes weeks.
Worsening State of Affairs in Myanmar
Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities have seen an increase of persecution in the months since the Tatmadaw seized control of the central government. The Tatmadaw has killed over 800 citizens and arrested thousands in a brutal attempt to crack down on dissent and solidify its grip on power.
Before the coup, Myanmar’s people looked to the democratically elected government for legal reform and for protection from the ravages of the Tatmadaw. Now that the civilian government has been done away with, little stands between the Tatmadaw and Myanmar’s vulnerable minorities.
Despite a barrage of sanctions levied against it by the international community, the junta shows little sign of backing down. The ineffectiveness of the international community’s current sanctions regime means that Myanmar is likely to descend into some sort of civil war, analysts say.
Incidents are escalating, with airstrikes and ground fighting spreading to various regions around the country. Tens of thousands have fled, and many more are sure to follow in the months ahead. Instability, food shortages, and great loss of life threaten the Burmese people—especially its vulnerable minorities. The international community must continue to push back against the Tatmadaw and do everything in its power to protect the people from the threat posed by their new military government.
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