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Tluang Kip Thang

June 24th, 2024

The Coup d’état in Myanmar and Collective Punishment of Minorities

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Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Tluang Kip Thang

June 24th, 2024

The Coup d’état in Myanmar and Collective Punishment of Minorities

0 comments | 5 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

As the military junta loses direct control over most of the country to ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) and other local resistance groups, their repression has often targeted specific minority communities. Political analyst Tluang Kip Thang discusses the targeting of Christian minorities in Myanmar, alongside ‘partisan’ Buddhists who are also vulnerable to the junta‘s actions.   

 

Following the coup d’état in February 2021, Myanmar’s military regime (the State Administration Council) reversed, suspended, annulled, and amended many of the country’s laws, imposed several new regulations and notifications and executed multiple orders under the so-called Emergency clauses of the military-drafted Constitution of 2008. These included the suspension of many basic human rights that are protected under its domestic and international laws, leading to the arrest and killing of many innocent civilians: according to the Assistant Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), as of 20 June 2024 the military regime has arrested and detained more than 26,893 people across the country, while very few political prisoners have been among a wider release of prisoners in 15 separate pardons and amnesty announcements. While the actual numbers are likely much higher, apart from arrests and detentions, over 5,000 people (including pro-democracy activists and civilians) have been killed in ongoing armed clashes.

By the end of 2023, according to Data for Myanmar, the military junta and its proxy groups have burned down over 70,000 buildings/structures including civilian houses, religious sites and places of worship. According to the United Nations, as of June 2024, a total of more than 3.1 million people have fled their homes in Myanmar due to the ongoing conflict and insecurity since the 2021 military putsch.

Destruction of Religious Sites/Places of Worship

Drawing on the belief that the enemy resides among the people, as Xu (2018: 12) argues, the junta applies counter-insurgency (or, as some say, ‘counter-terrorism’) operations by destroying the power of the enemy. According to Irawaddy, they have destroyed or damaged more than 200 religious structures through arson and other forms of attacks (including air strikes) across the country. These attacks particularly targeted the Karenni (also known as Kayah), Chin and some other states which are dominantly Christian (who represent about 6 per cent of the country’s population).

The Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO) says that the military has destroyed or partially damaged at least 112 religious properties — 75 Christian churches and 5 Buddhist monasteries in Chin State alone; of these, airstrikes alone have destroyed 19 churches. Similarly, the Progressive Karenni People’s Force (PKPF) has documented at least 50 places of worship that have been destroyed since the coup in Karenni state. According to the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG 2022), at least 20 religious buildings have been destroyed in Karen State in the first year after the coup. After Chin state, the Sagaing region in northwest Myanmar is second in the destruction of religious buildings at 50 – most of them Buddhist monasteries.

In the early months after the coup, many young protesters used religious buildings or compounds as a safe place to hide when the security forces cracked down violently on demonstrations and marches. As a result, Christian churches have faced scrutiny and become targets for raids. In many other cases, troops of the military junta have set up their bases or camps at Christian churches and religious sites in Chin, Karenni, southern Shan and other states, as also argued by Chaigne (2002). Defectors from the military have testified that religious buildings are chosen because they provide junta soldiers a sense of protection from direct attack by local resistance groups. The junta has denied this, accusing the resistance groups instead and forcing different pro-junta groups such as the Union of Patriotic Monks and Young Men’s Buddhist Association to condemn such acts using the regime-controlled media.

Despite official denial, attacks on religious communities and their property are blatant, and have become a constant in ethnic states where fighting against the junta is persistent. Simultaneously, church buildings and religious sites have become targets for retaliation attacks when the junta’s troops suffer and face losses in their fight against local armed resistance forces led by longstanding ethnic armed organisations (EAOs).

In 2023, the junta conducted multiple airstrikes against several Chin villages in retaliation to convoy ambushes which were part of the junta‘s major offensive in Chin State. Fighter jets bombed villages where there were no active armed clashes, deliberately targeting places of worship, other church buildings, and nearby areas. A long-term observer of human rights in the region said that such attacks are part of a deliberate strategy: churches are  targets because they are the biggest (and most easily visible) buildings, as well as a symbol of Christian community identity which bristles against Buddhist nationalism. Za Uk Ling (2023) argues that attacks on religious buildings send a powerful signal to civilians — that even places protected by international humanitarian laws are military targets if they harbour or support non-junta groups.

More recently, such actions have expanded into Sagaing and Magway regions in the Bamar and Buddhist majority heartland of the country. Myanmar Now reported that the junta carried out two targeted airstrikes and then fired rockets at a monastery in Saw Township, Magway Region on 9 May 2024. The attacks set fire to the monastery, which was destroyed completely and resulted in the deaths of more than two dozen civilians.

‘Demographic targeted repression’ (Rozenas 2020) happens when the regime targets civilians based on geographic residence as resistance strongholds though the successive military junta in Burma/Myanmar has described itself as the protector of the Buddhist religion and Bamar identity for decades since the country’s independence. Following the 2021 coup, Buddhist monks, novices, nuns, and monasteries, however, have not been spared either if they are suspected of supporting the anti-coup movement or have joined forces with the armed resistance groups. The junta’s armed forces even restricted the movement of people from Sagaing and Magway regions based on their national registration cards that indicated their geographic residence.

Collective Punishment of Christians

Not just the physical targeting of places of worship and religious sites, which most often host internally displaced people or serve as centres or public spaces in ethnic states such as the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni, the military junta has also imposed different rules, regulations and restrictions targeting the population.

Morris (1982: 181) has argued that Israel’s policy in Occupied Territories is one of collective punishment; this applies to the current Myanmar context as well. For instance, it can be posited that one aspect of the Myanmar military’s policy in the Opposition’s stronghold and ethnic territories is identical to the Israeli policy of collective punishment in the form of curfews or other penalties imposed on entire communities. The junta, as of 4 March 2024, has declared and placed a total of 61 townships under martial law or military administration, revealing a significant decline in the junta’s control of the country. It has also allowed the military to have complete control over these areas — prohibiting gatherings of more than five people, limiting the freedom of movement and imposing curfews, among many others. In order to counter resistance movements in places under martial law (and other areas), the junta has imposed curfew from 6 pm to 6 am (with relaxations in some areas). Life in these areas is summarised in the following statement from a resident:

Due to these strict military rules, people in public spaces are not allowed together in groups of more than 5 persons. It has also impacted most of the church activities normally happening in the late afternoon or evening. Only normal church services that operate in compliance with established protocols and during daytime have been possible to continue. Even the Sunday school program for children every Sunday which starts at 6 am needed to be adjusted or the time changed ….

Similarities between the Myanmar junta and Israeli authorities are visible elsewhere too. As in the case of Israel (like the dynamiting of a family home when one of its members is suspected of act(s) hostile to the occupying power) the junta has also confiscated and sealed civilian homes, forced local shops to close and, of course, banned gatherings in churches and worship services or prohibited gatherings in general in extreme situations. Oddly, the military has also imposed restrictions on motorbikes, such as outlawing pillion riders and wearing masks in public areas.

In response to the activities of the Opposition/resistance, the junta has imposed several incident-based restrictions targeting the whole population as it labels everyone as ‘Opposition’, especially in ethnic minority/Christian states. Following the resistance groups’ attack on the junta’s convoy on 12 April 2024, it responded with collective punishment against the people, accusing them of covering or shielding the Opposition. According to residents of Hakha (capital of Chin state), civilians cannot even open small shops or gather for worship or funeral services, and grouping of more than five people at one place is strictly prohibited, as a collective punishment. As a result, at least 16 churches are unable to open and conduct worship services in Hakha, according to a local pastor. It is important to remember that the junta’s imposition of collective punishment is a war crime under international law as it directly affects innocent civilians.

The military regime has also targeted religious leaders from the Christian minority for doing their work: sermons and preaching in the church could lead them to prison; some have even ended up dead due to their welfare work for the people. For instance, in 2021, the junta soldiers shot dead a Chin Christian pastor and even took his wedding ring (by cutting off his finger) since he had been helping the people. Myanmar’s northern Kachin State Baptist leader Reverend Hkalam Samson was arrested for allegedly defaming the military in his sermons. The junta also issued an order for Christians to submit a list of all those attending church services. According to AAPP, a local monitoring group working for the rights of political prisoners in Myanmar for decades, since the coup the junta has arrested over 160 different religious leaders, of which a third of the detainees were from the Christian minority communities even though Christians accounted for only 6 per cent of the population in the country.

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In conclusion, the targeting of religious minorities in Myanmar is deep-rooted and not a new phenomenon as Buddhism is superimposed as a ‘special religion’ at the highest level of the State (Constitution 2008: 151) with its protected status dating back since the 1960s, just a decade after the independence of the country in 1948. Since then, the State has been using its machinery to promote Buddhism at the expense of other religious minorities, including Christians. Successive military regimes in Myanmar have openly invoked Buddhist religious nationalism by backing or allowing the establishment of groups that protect and promote its agenda and give them political legitimacy. Christian minorities in Myanmar have been discriminated against for a long time, but the situation has worsened since the coup on 1 February 2021.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy.

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Gayatri Malhotra, 2021, Unsplash.

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About the author

Tluang Kip Thang

Tluang Kip Thang is a political analyst.

Posted In: Myanmar

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