Thursday, January 29

From Reuters

Up to 100,000 Christian Chin who have fled to India in the past 20 years to escape persecution by Myanmar’s Buddhist military rulers are at risk of being forced back, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

The New York-based rights said local authorities and community organisations in Mizoram frequently targeted Chin migrants, one of the former Burma’s many oppressed ethnic minorities.

“They live at the mercy of the local population,” HRW said in a report on the plight of the Chin, whose ancestral homes are in the mountainous reaches of northwest Myanmar.

“The Chin in Mizoram lack jobs, housing and affordable education,” HRW consultant Amy Alexander said, adding most were relegated to temporary, labour-intensive and low-paying jobs, earning around 100 rupees ($2) a day for 10 to 16-hour shifts.

The report comes at a time when attention has turned on the Rohingyas, another minority group in Myanmar, who have been fleeing abuse and harassment.

In the last two months, 550 Muslim Rohingyas are feared to have drowned after the Thai army forced 1,000 found in the Andaman Sea into wooden boats before towing out to international waters and cutting them adrift.

Despite relatively close ethnic ties between the Chin and Mizoram natives, tensions between the two populations regularly flared into anti-Chin pogroms, the HRW report said.

“Because they are stateless and marginalized and the poorest of the poor, they tend to be the scapegoat whenever there’s an incident at the border,” HRW researcher Sara Colm said.

The largest such campaign was in 2003, when the Young Mizo Association (YMA) forced 10,000 Chin back into Myanmar, HRW said.

In September 2008, the YMA issued an order for the Chin to leave Mizoram by the end of the month. The threat did not materialize, but it was enough for them to go into hiding, close their churches and wait till tensions were over, HRW said.

Such incidents showed India failing in its obligations to protect refugees or asylum seekers, Alexander said.

New Delhi has not signed the 1951 Refugee Convention but under international law, is bound by the principle of ‘nonrefoulement’, which protects migrants from being returned to any country where they could be persecuted.

In addition to what HRW described as “decades of systematic abuse” at the hands of the Myanmar army, the Chin’s woes have been compounded by a 2007 infestation of rats that destroyed huge swathes of crops and food stores.

A recent U.N. survey estimated that 40 percent of people in Chin State, Myanmar’s poorest, did not have enough food, increasing the number of people trying to leave the country.

Wednesday, January 28

Persecution of Chin People Continues

The Chin people, Christians living in the remote mountains of northwestern Myanmar, are subject to forced labor, torture, extrajudicial killings and religious persecution by the country's military regime, a human rights group said Wednesday.

The New York-based Human Right Watch said as many as 100,000 people have fled the Chin homeland into neighboring India, where they face abuse and the risk of being forced back into Myanmar.

"The Chin are unsafe in Burma and unprotected in India," a report from the group said. The report said the regime in Myanmar, also known as Burma, continues to commit atrocities against its other ethnic minorities.

Myanmar's ruling junta has been widely accused of widespread human rights violations in ethnic minority areas where anti-government insurgent groups are fighting for autonomy. The government has repeatedly denied such charges. An e-mailed request for comment on the new report was not immediately answered.

Chief Secretary Vanhela Pachau, a top official for India's Mizoram state, said he had not seen the report and could not comment.

"(The police) hit me in my mouth and broke my front teeth. They split my head open and I was bleeding badly. They also shocked me with electricity," the group quoted a Chin man accused of supporting the insurgents, who are small in number and largely ineffective.

He was one of some 140 Chin people interviewed by the human rights group from 2005 to 2008. The group said the names of those interviewed were withheld to prevent reprisals.

A number of people spoke of being forced out of their villages to serve as unpaid porters for the army or to build roads, sentry posts and army barracks.

Amy Alexander, a consultant for Human Rights Watch, told a news conference that insurgents of the Chin National Front also committed abuses such as extorting money from villagers to fund their operations.

Alexander said Myanmar's government, attempting to suppress minority cultures, was destroying churches, desecrating crosses, interfering with worship services by forcing Christians to work on Sundays and promoting Buddhism through threats and inducements. Some 90 percent of the Chin are Christians, most of them adherents to the American Baptist Church.

Ethnic insurgencies erupted in Myanmar in the late 1940s when the country gained independence from Great Britain.

Former junta member Gen. Khin Nyunt negotiated cease-fires with 17 of the insurgent groups before he was ousted by rival generals in 2004.

Among rebels still fighting are groups from the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Chin minorities.

At least half a million minority people have been internally displaced in eastern Myanmar as a result of the regime's brutal military campaigns while refugees continue to flee to the Thai-Myanmar border. More than 145,000 refugees receive international humanitarian assistance in Thai border camps.

Alexander said that some 30,000 Chin have also sought refuge in Malaysia while about 500 were living in Thai border camps.

Tuesday, January 27

From Compass Direct News

Burmese authorities last week [week of 12/01/09 -- see report below on 16 January] increased restrictions on Christian activity in the capital city of Rangoon and surrounding areas, including the closure of several churches, Compass sources confirmed yesterday.

Orders issued on Jan. 5 had already forced many Christians meeting in residential homes or apartments to cease gathering for worship. Officials last week ordered several major Rangoon churches, including Wather Hope Church, Emmanuel Church and the Assemblies of God Church, to cease holding services and continued enforcing the Jan. 5 ban on meetings held in unauthorized facilities.

In the late 1990s authorities stopped issuing permits for land purchase or the construction of new churches, leading many Burmese Christians to conduct services in rented apartments or office buildings, according to the Burmese news agency Mizzima.

The Kyauktada Township Peace and Development Council on Jan. 5 invited pastors from more than 100 Rangoon churches to a meeting where they were told to sign documents pledging to cease operation of their churches. About 50 pastors attended, according to Mizzima.

The documents threatened punishment, including potential jail terms and the sealing of church facilities, for pastors who refused to obey the closure orders.

Another local online news source, the Democratic Voice of Burma, claimed officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs had summoned the owners of buildings where churches met and ordered them not to rent their properties to religious groups.

Mizzima quoted an unnamed Burmese Christian who claimed that 80 percent of churches in Rangoon were affected by the order.

History of Religious Repression

Some local Christians and international observers say the crackdown is related to Christian involvement in relief efforts for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma in May 2008.

Despite widespread devastation and loss of life, Burma’s reclusive government initially banned foreign aid but finally accepted it on condition that Burmese officials would distribute it. Christians, however, had responded immediately to the crisis, gathering relief supplies and transporting them to the Irrawaddy Delta region. Police or army officials stopped some groups, but many were allowed to proceed. At least one such group told Compass that officials likely feared the conversion of Buddhists who accepted aid from Christians.

The military junta ruling Burma promotes Buddhism at the expense of other minority religions, according to Paul A. Marshall’s 2008 Religious Freedom in the World. The country’s population is 82 percent Buddhist, 9 percent Christian and 4 percent Muslim, with traditional ethnic, Chinese and Hindu religions accounting for the rest.

The church closure orders may simply be an extension of Burma’s existing religious policies, which elevate Buddhism in an effort to solidify national identity. Burma ranks high on lists of religious and human rights violators at several watch organizations, including the U.S. State Department, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Open Doors.

Documents declaring the government’s intention to “stamp out” Christianity have circulated for some time. Rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide drew attention to one such document in a 2007 report entitled, “Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma.” The report summarized a 17-point document allegedly produced by an organization affiliated with the Ministry of Religious Affairs entitled, “Program to Destroy the Christian Religion in Burma.”

The first point in this document declared that, “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practiced.”

A military dictatorship has ruled Burma since 1962. Following the takeover, the government renamed Burma as the Union of Myanmar and the capital city as Yangon, but many news agencies and government bodies continue to use the original names. When elections were held in 1988, with the opposing National League for Democracy clearly in the majority, the generals rejected the popular vote and used brute military force to cement their power throughout Burma. A similar show of force met hundreds of Buddhist monks who initiated mass anti-government protest rallies on the streets of Rangoon in September 2007.

While almost all Burmese citizens suffer under the regime, Christians are often singled out for specific attack or repression because of their perceived connections with the West.

Reports from various mission groups suggest Christianity is flourishing under the regime, but believers must be creative with their worship – particularly in rural areas. In reports confirmed by Compass, Christians in one state began photocopying Bibles to overcome restrictions on religious publications. Others baptized new Christians during the annual water festival, where citizens douse each other with buckets of water, ceremonially washing away the “sins” of the past year.

Heightened Security, Control

Rangoon residents say a much heavier security presence has been evident in the city since early January, when political activists began distributing anti-government leaflets, The Irrawaddy newspaper reported on Jan. 13. The leaflet drops may have contributed to the current crackdown on church gatherings, as generals suspect all organized groups of having a political agenda.

At a graduation of military students in Rangoon on Jan. 9, Vice-Senior Gen. Maung Aye, who is commander-in-chief of the army and deputy commander-in-chief of Defense Services, warned students to steadfastly uphold the country’s “Three Main National Causes” to prevent “recurrences of past bitter experiences.” The causes were listed as non-disintegration of the Union of Myanmar, non-disintegration of national solidarity and perpetuation of sovereignty.

The New Light of Myanmar, a government newspaper, reported the general as saying that, “You will have learned bitter lessons from a number of world events, in which certain States have become weaker … owing to external intervention in their conflicts.”

From The Irrawady

The Burmese government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) censored publication of a major part of US President Barack Obama’s inauguration speech in the Rangoon-based weekly journal The Voice, according to journalists in the former capital.

Sources said that the censorship board decided not to allow the publishing of parts of Obama’s inauguration speech that included sensitive political messages.

A part of the speech that was cut was: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Burmese inside and outside the country circulated this part of the speech through the Internet and it was widely interpreted as a message to dictators, including Burma’s rulers.

A journalist in Rangoon said that Burma’s censorship board ordered the speech to be removed from the front page of The Voice, but it allowed the journal to publish stories and pictures of Obama in its inside pages.

Burma’s privately owned magazines and journals have widely covered news of Barack Obama since the presidential election campaign began. 

According to media sources in Burma, there was originally little harassment or any serious warnings from the notoriously fickle censorship board. But all publications have reportedly been careful not to cover sensitive material about the strained US-Burmese relationship.

Burma’s top military leader, Snr-Gen Than Shwe, formally congratulated the US president on his election victory.

Last week, the Agence-France Presse (AFP) news agency reported that the Burmese junta hopes that the new US president will change Washington's tough policy toward the military regime and end the "misunderstandings" of the past.

“Our two countries' relations have had some misunderstandings in the past with the Bush administration. Mr Obama needs to study our country's real situation so that he can change policy,” a Burmese official reportedly told AFP.

“There have been many mistakes in the past [in relations between the countries]. We have had misunderstandings. But now we are expecting good intentions,” he said. The official also accused former President Bush of making "one-sided" decisions.”

In spite of media restrictions, many people inside Burma watched the live televised coverage of Obama’s inauguration on satellite television. 

Rangoon-based media sources said that the PSRD was acting under the instructions of the Ministry of Information. The censorship board did not permit the publishing of articles related to Obama’s speech in other weekly journals, including The Yangon Times and True News.

Saturday, January 24

Black Money Slowed To Trickle

The black market value of Burma's currency, the kyat, hit a three-year high of nearly 1,000 to the US dollar on Friday, putting a brake on the unofficial cash transfers from abroad known as hundi.

The kyat had been skyrocketing all week, reaching new highs against not only the dollar but also, on Wednesday, the Thai baht (25 kyat), Singapore dollar (714 kyat) and the Chinese yuan (1,639.34), according to hundi services in Bangkok, Singapore and at the Sino-Burmese border.

"We are surprised and shocked,” said one businessman running a hundi service in Bangkok. “Now our service has been halted, and we can’t say when we will restart it. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

The hundi is an underground banking system that uses a network of unofficial currency exchangers and money transmitters in Burma.

The lack of an active and efficient money transaction service run by international and local private financial institutions and untrustworthy government exchange rates cause Burmese expatriates and migrant workers to use the informal services.

Burmese expatriates contacted by The Irrawaddy said they didn’t want to transfer money home at the current rate. Experts said that a fall in remittances from abroad, together with rising unemployment among migrant workers, could have a dire effect on Burma’s rural economy, in which millions of people rely on hundi transfers.

Black market currency dealers, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the illicit nature of their work, said the soaring value of the kyat could not be ascribed to any single reason. The black market rate is linked not only to China's yuan, the US dollar and the price of gold, but also to the volume of border trade.

One observer in Rangoon said the global recession could be a factor because it had resulted in a halt to cross-border trade.

The price of gold in the country is meanwhile falling because of declining demand, according to gold shops in Rangoon. So far this month, the price for a tical of 24 carat gold has dropped from 525,000 kyat to 468,000 kyat. One tical is equal to 0.525 troy ounces.

"Consumers are not buying like before,” said one gold shop owner. “There are more sellers than buyers.”

Tuesday, January 20

Burmese Astrologer on Obama

YANGON: A top astrologer in Myanmar on Monday predicted ahead of Barack Obama’s inauguration that the US president-elect would win another term in office and that he would escape attempts to harm him.

“Obama will be definitely re-elected again. Leos are born to lead others. His card shows the emperor sign,” said San-Zarni Bo, 53, who gives daily predictions on a Myanmar FM radio station.

He said Obama’s birthday on August 4 means “the country will be developed under the leadership of number-four born Obama”.

But he warned that, according to his reading of the stars, there would be “certain assassination attempts” in 2009, 2010 and 2013 but that they would fail because of his birth date and horoscope.

“I can basically say all attempts will fail and be unsuccessful. But how can we say definitely without reading his palm?” he said.

He also warned of potential threats to incoming secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

“According to astrology, the arrow is pointing to Madam Clinton,” he said.

Numerology plays an important role in the daily life of this devoutly Buddhist country, where people turn to astrologers to determine the most auspicious times for weddings, travelling or making business deals.

Asked if Obama would help the people of military-ruled Myanmar – against whose junta Washington has imposed sanctions – San-Zarni Bo said people born on the fourth day of the month “stand on the side of the weak people”.

It will be interesting to see if Mr Obama speaks out for the weak tribal people who profess the Lord Jesus, regardless of what day of the month he was born. The people of Burma need action, not rhetoric and not superstition.

Friday, January 16

Military Junta Closing Churches

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) has received reports of a serious crackdown on churches in Rangoon, the former capital of Burma.

According to the news agency Mizzima, local authorities in Rangoon have ordered at least 100 churches to stop holding worship services. Mizzima also reports that the order could affect as many as 80 per cent of churches in the city, and that 50 pastors were forced to sign at least five documents promising to cease church services. The pastors were reportedly warned they could be jailed if they disobeyed the order.

The campaign appears to be particularly targeted at churches meeting in apartment buildings, rather than churches that own their own building and land. According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), officials from the local branch of the Ministry of Religious Affairs summoned the owners of buildings in which churches were meeting, and issued them with an order prohibiting the use of private property for religious purposes. “Christians are worried that they will not be allowed to worship anymore, even in their own house,” said one pastor in a report received by CSW.

One pastor in Rangoon, who cannot be named for security reasons, claimed in a report received by CSW that several churches have now been locked and sealed, including three churches in South Dagon Township: the Evangelical Baptist Church, the Karen Baptist Church and the Dagon Joshua Church. An eyewitness said that in one church, the pastor presented his Legal Registration Certificate provided by the Ministry of Religious Affairs to the authorities when they came to inform him of the new order. In response, officials told him his registration certificate had been withdrawn.

Some Christians believe that the immediate cause of the crackdown is church involvement in providing relief for victims of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the area in May 2008. According to Shwekey Hoipang, a Chin pastor from Burma living in exile, the regime does not like the fact that Buddhists have been receiving help from churches, and fears this may possibly result in conversions. “The regime does not want Buddhists coming in and out of churches. It does not want Christianity to grow in Burma,” said Shwekey Hoipang. “Ultimately, the regime seeks the destruction of Christianity. This is part of a top-secret plan by the military to stop Christian growth.”

Burma is categorised as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ by the US State Department, for its violations of religious freedom. In 2007, CSW published a report, Carrying the Cross: The military regime’s campaign of restriction, discrimination and persecution against Christians in Burma, which revealed a 17-point document allegedly from an organisation affiliated to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, titled “Programme to Destroy the Christian religion in Burma”. The first point states: “There shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised.”

Benedict Rogers, East Asia Team Leader at CSW and author of Carrying the Cross said: “There is no doubt that the regime is hostile to minority religions in Burma, particularly Christianity and Islam, and seeks to restrict and suppress them. This recent crackdown is an extremely worrying development and a serious violation of religious freedom. We urge the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion and Belief, and the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, to put pressure on the Burmese junta to end these violations and to permit churches and other religious institutions to operate freely, in accordance with internationally-accepted norms of religious freedom.”

CSW is a human rights organisation which specialises in religious freedom, works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs and promotes religious liberty for all.

Monday, January 5

Aung Shwe: Hope is totally lacking.

Associated Press: Myanmar's pro-democracy party marked the 61st anniversary of the country's independence from Great Britain on Sunday, saying it foresaw no hope for the military-ruled country.

At a ceremony inside the dilapidated headquarters of the opposition National League for Democracy, its chairman Aung Shwe also called for the release of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and other party leaders.

Suu Kyi _ who has been under house arrest for more than 13 of the past 19 years _ put up a banner at the gate of her home quoting a speech her father, independence hero Gen. Aung San, had once given: 'Act decisively in the interest of the nation and the people.'

In a speech to about 250 party members and diplomats, Aung Shwe said that national unity is in disarray and that there is 'no harmony between the government and the governed.'

'Hope for the present and future of the country is totally lacking,' Aung Shwe said.

Myanmar gained independence from Britain on Jan. 4, 1948, after more than 120 years of colonial rule. It has been under harsh military rule since 1962.

Meanwhile, the leader of the military junta Senior Gen. Than Shwe warned that 'neocolonialists' were interfering in domestic affairs and inciting riots to undermine unity and stability.

'Neocolonialists' normally refers to Western nations that have been sharply critical of the regime's human rights record and brutal crackdowns on any protests.

The current junta emerged in 1988 after violently suppressing mass pro-democracy protests. It held a general election in 1990, but refused to recognize the results after a landslide victory by Suu Kyi's party.