Faith Unbroken: Persecuted Christians in Burma

Aizawl, Mizoram State, on the India-Burma border: It was dusk as we made our way down the mountainside to the headquarters of the Chin National Front (CNF). We were a motley crew—a deputy speaker of the British House of Lords, a retired surgeon, a British doctor living in Australia, a journalist-turned-human-rights advocate, a bearded, beer-drinking Australian engineer who crushes pythons with his bare feet, and his Dutch-Indonesian wife who was raised in the United States. “Your coming here is a Godsend,” the CNF chairman told us after he had prayed a blessing over our meal.

The Chin people of Burma, who number more than 1 million, and the Kachin are both estimated to be 90 percent Christian. As a result of their Christian faith, they face persecution from the ruling military regime, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), on three counts—ethnicity, politics, and religion. And yet most of the outside world is unaware of their plight. “Many foreigners go to the eastern borders of Burma, and we used to pray that foreigners would come to the western border,” said one Chin in Aizawl. “We used to weep when no one came.”

Earlier, in Delhi, a Kachin refugee had said: “We feel we are known by no one.”

The main reason the Chin and Kachin are forgotten is that they aren’t easily accessible. Foreigners cannot simply walk into Mizoram, an area considered “sensitive” by the Indian authorities. A special permit is required for that kind of travel, and permits are only issued to groups of four or more tourists. We were six, and even though we had Baroness Caroline Cox, international human-rights advocate and deputy speaker of the House of Lords, with us, we qualified. When we met with the chief minister of Mizoram at the end of our visit, he seemed rather surprised that a deputy speaker of the House of Lords would choose to spend her vacation there—staying in a run-down hotel with an unusual assortment of companions—and not tell him in advance of her arrival. He graciously forgave us and promised us rooms in the state guest house on our next visit. “I hope you will make it a habit to visit Mizoram,” he said as our meeting ended.

Eager to tell their stories, the Chins we met with—a mixture of refugees, pastors, CNF leaders, backpack medics, community development workers, and traders—all told of religious persecution, forced labor, cultural genocide, and torture.

Replacing Christ With Buddha

Burma is ranked among the six worst violators of religious freedom by the U.S. State Department, and that ranking is deserved. No Burmese Christian, for example, can rise to the rank of head of department in the local government or be promoted beyond the rank of major in the army. Printing the Bible is prohibited in Chin State, and so the Chins are forced to smuggle in Bibles printed in India. In 2001, the SPDC seized 16,000 Bibles and burned them all.

Throughout Chin State there used to be crosses on mountaintops, symbolizing the faith of the people. Now, none remain. Villagers have been forced to tear them down and, in many places, to replace them with Buddhist pagodas. On a mountaintop near the main road from Falam to Kaya Myo, Chin youth groups constructed a large wooden cross, painted white, which could be seen from all directions. The SPDC destroyed this and replaced it with a pagoda. In the capital, Hakha, a cross was built on a mountain in 1982, and six years later, an even larger one was installed. In 1994, it was destroyed and replaced with the statue of a Buddhist monk. The last cross in Chin State was torn down in 2001.

Not only are Christians forced to destroy crosses and build pagodas, they are required to contribute financially to Buddhist projects. Each year, Christians are required to contribute 1 percent of their gross income to the costs of each Buddhist festival, and all government servants, regardless of religion, must attend. Sometimes, however, financial contributions are drawn under false pretenses. Christians are told, for example, to pay a fee for their identity card, and then the money is used for the construction of a pagoda and recorded as a donation from the Christians.

In one of the most insidious examples of persecution, the SPDC has sent in hundreds of Buddhist “missionaries” to Chin State in an effort to convert Chin Christians. Those who become Buddhists are given privileges—places in the best schools, which they would otherwise be denied, and exemption from forced labor, which they would otherwise have to do. The junta’s agents go into impoverished villages and offer rice to those who convert.

Children from Chin and Kachin Christian families are taken away and placed in monasteries, where their heads are shaved and they become novice monks. This is done under the guise of giving the children a good education—but the parents are not told where their children are actually being taken, and they never see them again. SPDC soldiers are offered promotions and other incentives if they marry a Chin or Kachin Christian woman.

For any gathering of more than five people, other than a Sunday church service, and for any new construction or renovation, a permit is required. But even when an application for a permit is submitted well in advance, the authorities rarely issue it in time for the meeting. This means that few Christian gatherings—Bible studies, conferences, and celebrations can take place. Wedding ceremonies are often delayed because a permit has not been granted. Since 1994, no new church buildings have been permitted in Chin State, despite numerous applications. And according to a Kachin refugee in Delhi, on October 29, 2000, the authorities closed the Myanmar Bible Institute and ordered the students to destroy the buildings themselves.

Disruption of Sunday services is another subtle example of efforts by the junta to undermine the Chins’ Christian practice. Visits by SPDC officials to Chin villages are often deliberately arranged on a Sunday or on Christian holy days, and villagers are required to greet the official instead of attending church. In one town, a new pagoda was opened on Christmas Day and a daylong celebration was held—which meant villagers were unable to celebrate Christmas together.

As in the rest of Burma, forced labor, according to a Kachin refugee, occurs “on a daily basis” in Kachin and Chin areas. Often the SPDC deliberately demands forced labor during Christian festivals. In Sabungte, for example, Tatmadaw soldiers ordered villagers to porter for the army from December 20, 2003, until January 19, 2004, during the Christmas and New Year period. They had to carry 55- pound packs of rice, ammunition, and mortars. In Hmun Halh, in July of last year, troops entered a church in the middle of a Sunday service and ordered the church leaders to leave immediately to serve as porters.

In yet another attack on Chin religion, culture, and society, the SPDC has deliberately imported large quantities of crude alcohol to sell on the streets. The Chin do not permit alcohol in their society, but young people have been lured by Tatmadaw soldiers and sold a liquor known as “O.B.,” a mix of methyl and ethyl alcohol brought in from Rangoon. A bottle sells for 1,000 kyat (about $1.60), and medical experts assess that the substance is so strong it would be illegal in the West. It is highly addictive and causes serious physical dam-age—toxic liver failure, jaundice, brain damage, and sometimes, ultimately, death. Addiction leads to crime and social breakdown, and when those who consume the alcohol become too drunk, they are arrested and a 5,000 kyat (about $8) bail is required for their release. It affects church attendance, with children sometimes as young as twelve, teenagers, and young married couples buying the liquor, often on a Sunday. “It causes the breakdown of body, mind, spirit, and society,” one Chin Christian said.

Crimes Against Humanity

The Chin language and culture is another target for the SPDC. One former school teacher described how he was arrested in April 2000 for holding tuition classes for students, in which he taught the Chin language. He was detained for a week and severely tortured. His captors rolled a wooden pole along his shins repeatedly until the skin came off, and then a plastic bag full of water was placed over his head. He was punched, kicked, and warned never to teach the Chin language and culture again.

Prisoners in the Chin and Kachin areas are subjected to regular torture. One village leader, Than Rawl, was captured by the SPDC in 1999. He had been the leader of Bungkhua village. The headman of Fungkah village had sent two messengers to Rawl to deliver a letter, but they were intercepted by the SPDC. Bungkhua village was then surrounded by soldiers who arrested several villagers. Rawl was ordered to dig a hole in the ground, and then he was chained and forced to spend four days and nights in the hole without food, water, or access to toilet facilities. When he was taken out of the hole, soldiers scraped an iron bar up and down his shins, down to the bone, and then hanged him from a tree for a day, his hands tied behind his back. The ropes around his hands were so tight that his arms swelled up. Finally, that night he and two others decided to attempt an escape and succeeded in fleeing to the India border. To this day, he does not know what the letter from the headman of Fungkah contained.

None of this was news to me—it simply adds to the mounting evidence of crimes against humanity carried out by the junta, which oppresses all who oppose it. It is a regime that seized power in a coup in 1962, held elections in 1990, lost those elections overwhelmingly, but has nevertheless intensified its grip on power. The winner of the elections, Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest, and many of the elected politicians are still in prison. More than a million people from the Karen, Karenni, and Shan ethnic minorities are displaced in the jungles of eastern Burma, many without shelter, food, or medicine. At least 150,000 refugees are in camps across the border in Thailand, while thousands of Chin, Arakan, and Rohingya are displaced along the India and Bangladesh borders. There are at least 1,300 political prisoners behind bars.

The use of rape as a weapon of war has been well documented. In a report called License to Rape, the Shan Human Rights Foundation and the Shan Women’s Action Network documented 625 rapes in Shan State alone between 1996 and 2001. Some victims were as young as five years old. The report claims that 83 percent of these rapes were carried out by army officers in front of their troops; 61 percent were gang rapes; and 25 percent of the victims were killed after they had been raped, their mutilated bodies hung on display in their villages.

The Burma Army has a terror squad known as the “Sa Sa Sa,” which in eastern Burma specializes in beheading villagers and displaying their victims’ heads as a warning to others. In one incident, soldiers attacked a group of young people playing volleyball in their village. They took one young man, cut off his head, stuck a cheroot in his mouth, and put the head on a pole at the entrance to the village. In other incidents, babies have been ground to death in rice pounders. A senior Burmese general has spoken publicly of the regime’s desire to eliminate all opposition. “In ten years, all Karen will be dead,” he threatened. “If you want to see a Karen, you will have to go to a museum in Rangoon.”

Although I did not cross the border from India into Chin State, I have been into the Karen and Shan areas from Thailand many times. On one such visit, after a six-hour trek up and down mountains, across streams, and through the jungle, I met a 15-year-old Shan boy. He described the day his father was shot dead by SPDC soldiers as he worked in his rice paddy. The boy waited until the soldiers left, and then he brought his father’s body back for burial. Two weeks later, the military struck again. This time, they burned down the village, killed most of the people, including his mother, and took the boy as a forced porter. Made to carry heavy loads and walk long distances with no food or water, the boy collapsed after three days and was beaten unconscious by the soldiers. When he woke up, he was able to escape and journeyed for two weeks through the jungle, surviving on tree bark and banana pulp. As he told his story, he looked at me with a desperate plea in his eyes and said: “Tell the world to put pressure on the military regime to stop killing its people. Tell the world not to forget us.”

There are an estimated 70,000 child soldiers in the Burma Army, making up 20 percent of the troops. Kyow’s story was typical. At the age of eleven, he stood at a bus stop in Rangoon on his way to visit an aunt. Before the bus arrived, an army truck pulled up beside him. Soldiers jumped out and grabbed him, forcing him into the vehicle. He was told he had to join the army. I asked him if he was given a choice. “My choice was to join the army or go to jail,” he said. He has never seen his parents since.

Now 14, Kyow is being sheltered by the Christian Karen. After three years in the Burma Army, he could not take any more. He decided to escape. The officers had regularly fed the troops anti-Karen propaganda, telling them they would suffer terrible torture at the hands of the Karen if they were ever captured by them. Kyow believed the propaganda and knew there was a strong chance of being caught by the Karen, but he no longer cared. “I did not want to live,” he said. He seized the moment, ran away into the jungle, and was indeed captured by the Karen. But, contrary to the propaganda, they treated him very well. “With the Karen, I feel safe, free, and loved,” he said. “With the Burma Army, life was like hell.” Like the Shan boy who had been a porter, Kyow gave me a plea for help. “It is not good for a child to be a soldier,” he said. “Tell the international community to speak to the regime, to tell them not to grab children and force them to be soldiers.”

Unbroken Faith

Yet despite all this suffering, among the Christians in Burma is incredible faith and hope. A Karen pastor, Rev. Dr. Simon, for example, had to give up a good position as a seminary professor and theologian to flee to the camps in Thailand. But once there, he put his time to good use. Seeing the needs of young people for education, he started a Bible school. He now offers bachelor’s degrees in divinity, approved by the Baptist World Alliance. And he composes meditations, in English, that speak of his people’s suffering and hope:

They call us a displaced people,

But praise God; we are not misplaced.

They say they see no hope for our future,

But praise God; our future is as bright as the promises of God.

They say they see the life of our people is a misery,

But praise God; our life is a mystery.

For what they say is what they see,

And what they see is temporal.

But ours is the eternal.

All because we put ourselves

In the hands of the God we trust.

In 2002, I visited a Karen village in Burma just a few weeks after it had been burned down by the Burma Army. The people had fled and moved a few miles up-river. Six months later I went back and visited the new settlement. A church had been built. The people gathered, dressed in their traditional red tunics and sarongs, and sang. Hymns such as “Amazing Grace” were juxtaposed with “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Hanging on the wall above the platform in the church were words of Scripture, from Revelation 2:10—”Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee a crown of life.”

Another source of hope is a missionary group, the Free Burma Rangers. Founded by a former U.S. special-forces officer turned Fuller Theological Seminary graduate, the Free Burma Rangers aim to bring “help, hope, and love” to Burma’s conflict-ridden jungles. The American, who for security reasons uses his Karen name—”Tha-U-Wah-A¬Pah,” or “Father of the White Monkey”—frequently puts his life on the line along with the rest of his team, often coming within inches of the Burma Army, to provide medical assistance, Bibles, and prayers to the internally displaced. On every mission, which usually covers hundreds of miles, an average of 2,000 patients is treated in the jungle, and more than 4,000 receive assistance of some kind. They bring packs of supplies donated for displaced mothers and children by individuals and churches around the world as part of what they call the “Good Life Club,” and they document human-rights atrocities. The Free Burma Rangers include medics, videographers, photographers, pastors, and musicians.

In 1996, Tha-U-Wah-A-Pah was able to visit Rangoon where he met with Aung San Suu Kyi. Although a practicing Buddhist, Suu Kyi reads the Bible regularly and told him that her favorite verse is John 8:32: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” She urged Christians around the world to pray for Burma. He responded by establishing Christians Concerned for Burma and initiating an annual Global Day of Prayer for Burma, held each year on the second Sunday of March.

A Turning Point?

On April 6 last year, Suu Kyi visited Hakha, Chin State. All government servants were warned not to attend her rallies. However, 20 government servants disobeyed the order, and in a rally of 3,000 or more people, five of them shook hands with Suu Kyi. Later that day, three of the five were arrested, and the authorities were searching for the other two. One escaped to India. “All government employees strongly support Suu Kyi and the democracy movement, but they are strictly prohibited to get involved,” he said. “They are afraid. They stay silent in order to survive.” Another Chin summed up the situation when he said: “People dare not speak the word ‘democracy.’”

Burma is now entering a critical phase. After the international outcry at the attempt by the SPDC to assassinate Suu Kyi on May 30 last year, the U.S. Congress passed trade and investment sanctions against the regime. While she remains under house arrest, the junta has started to talk of a “roadmap” to democracy and has engaged in historic ceasefire talks with the Karen and Karenni. The outcome of this rhetoric remains to be seen, but for the time being, the killing continues. A Burma Army commander, speaking after he had led an attack on a Karen village, slaughtering people and urinating on the head of a villager, summed up the spirit of the SPDC when he said: “I do not respect any religion. My religion is the trigger of my gun.”


  • Benedict Rogers

    Benedict Rogers is a journalist and human-rights activist working with Christian Solidarity Worldwide ( He has co-authored a book with Joseph D'Souza: "On the Side of Angels: Without Justice, There Can Be No Mission."

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