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Christians among ethnic minorities facing ‘genocide’ in former Burma

LONDON (BP)–A sizeable Christian community is among the Karen people group in Myanmar (formerly Burma) facing abuse at the hands of the country’s military regime, according to Newsroom-Online, an Internet news service based in London.

Newsroom-Online reported that the British human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) sent a team to Myanmar in November to document abuse claims.

CSW cited “widespread use of forced labor, involuntary relocation, military offensives against civilians, threats and intimidation, and destruction of crops and livestock,” based on firsthand testimonies of refugees in Thailand, trips into the Burmese jungle and evidence from recent military defectors.

Such crises “have all combined to force tens of thousands of Karen and Karenni [another people group in Myanmar] to flee from their homes and homelands,” CSW reported, with many living in the jungle with temporary shelter, insufficient food, and virtually no medical care, according to the Newsroom-Online news story. A third minority, the Shan, also have been targeted.” Myanmar’s population of nearly 49 million includes 8 million Karen, 1 million Karenni and 7 million Shan, Newsroom-Online reported.

Newsroom-Online stated: “Independent monitors of the southeast Asian nation say more than 30,000 Karen have died since 1992 as a direct or indirect result of government military action. More than half a million members of the three ethnic groups are internally displaced. Many are in the jungles without adequate supplies, trying to elude government soldiers, who have shoot-to-kill orders. More than 200,000 have fled to neighboring Thailand as refugees.”

Among the Karen are an estimated 10,000 baptized believers who are Baptists and an overall Baptist community of 50,000, according to 1999 figures reported by the Baptist World Alliance. About 30 percent of the Karen people and most of their leadership are Christian, partly as a result of British and American missionary activity in the 19th century, according to the London-based human rights group Jubilee Campaign.

An international day of prayer and fasting for the Karen, Karenni and Shan was held Jan. 7.

Newsroom-Online recounted that Stephen Dun, a Karen who grew up on the border with Thailand, told the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus last February that many of his people also face religious persecution in the mainly Buddhist country. In addition to the Karen, about half of the Karenni are Christians, while the Shan mainly are Buddhists or animists.

A directive of the previous parent of the current military regime, the Burmese Socialist Peoples Party, called for eradication of Christianity, Dun testified. One of the points of a directive said, according to a translation, “Christianity must be destroyed by peaceful means as well as violent means.”

Dun said the Burmese military has destroyed many churches, Newsroom-Online continued. “It is common practice for the military, when it enters a Karen village, to dismantle the church and use the materials to rebuild [Buddhist] monasteries,” Dun said in his testimony. Pastors have been “forced at gunpoint to help destroy their own churches and build pagodas, then forced to bow down and worship them,” Dun testified.

Newsroom-Online quoted Wilfred Wong of the Jubilee Campaign as saying that the Karen, Karenni and Shan now “are specifically facing genocide at the hands of the Burmese military, and they desperately do need more awareness about their situation.”

Describing their plight, Wong told the news service, “The numbers of internally displaced are escalating; the atrocities are not getting any less. The shortage of food for the internally displaced is as bad as ever.”

Wong told Newsroom-Online he believes the Myanmar regime’s repression of Karen, Karenni and Shan civilians fits the definition of genocide set by the 1948 United Nations convention. “No matter what the good intentions, we would not use the word genocide unless we were sure it was happening,” Wong was quoted as saying. “And we are sure it is happening.”

Wong, however, recounted that a Western European diplomat, whom he declined to name, told him at a United Nations Human Rights Commission meeting that “if we used the word genocide we would have to do something about it.”

In April, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights censured Burma for a “continuing pattern of gross and systematic violations of human rights, including extra-judicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, particularly in areas of ethnic tension,” Newsroom-Online recounted, adding that the resolution made specific reference to the forced relocation of Karen and Karenni ethnic minorities.

John Jackson of the London-based human rights group Burma Campaign told Newsroom-Online that one reason why ethnic atrocities in Myanmar have not received much attention in the Western media is because of a general lack of strategic significance to the West. A resolution by the U.S. Congress in October, however, said that according to a reliable report Burmese officials are “involved in the drug business or are paid to allow the drug business to be conducted by others.” The resolution concluded that these are “conditions which pose a direct threat to United States national security interests.” The U.S. Department of State International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2000 determined that Burma is the second largest worldwide source of illicit opium and heroin.

The United States is the only country that has sanctions against the military junta — a ban on new investments, Newsroom-Online reported. The October congressional resolution reaffirmed the sanctions and said U.S. policy “should strongly support the restoration of democracy in Burma, including implementation of the results of the free and fair elections of 1990,” which were won by the opposition National League for Democracy but ignored by the military regime.

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