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Ethnic Chin Christians from Burma Denied Religious Freedom, Coerced to Convert to Buddhism

By Chin Human Rights Organization  •  September 5, 2012

Christian Chin from western Burma are denied religious freedom and face coercion to convert to Buddhism as a result of state policy, according to a new report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).

The 160-page report, entitled ‘Threats to Our Existence’: Persecution of Ethnic Chin Christians in Burma” draws on more than 100 in-depth interviews conducted over the past two years.  The report exposes a decades-long pattern of religious freedom violations that persist today, and documents other serious human rights abuses such as forced labour, torture, and other cruel and inhuman treatment, forcing thousands of Chin to flee their homeland.

The report reveals ongoing violations of religious freedom in Burma’s Chin State under the new government led by President Thein Sein, including violations of the right to freedom of religious assembly; coercion to convert to Buddhism, the religion of the majority ethnic Burman population; and the destruction of Christian crosses in Chin State.

“President Thein Sein’s government claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de-facto state religion,” said CHRO Program Director Salai Ling. “The discriminatory state institutions and ministries of previous military regimes continue to operate in the same way today. Few reforms have reached Chin State.”

Burma’s Ministry of Religious Affairs imposes discriminatory regulations on constructing and renovating Christian infrastructure, making it difficult for Chin Christians to exercise freedom of religion. According to the report, since Thein Sein’s government came to power in March 2011 four large Christian crosses have been dismantled or destroyed on the orders of the authorities.

The report is the first to expose human rights abuses at the government’s little-known ‘Border Areas National Races Youth Development Training Schools’ (known locally as ‘Na Ta La’ schools: Na Ta La is the Burmese acronym for the Progress of the Border Areas and National Races Development Affairs Program). According to CHRO’s research, there are 29 such residential schools across the country, primarily targeting ethnic and religious minorities like the Chin; one-third of the trainees in the 29 schools are ethnic Chin.  Chin students are prevented from practising Christianity while at the schools and have been coerced to convert to Buddhism, primarily via the threat of military conscription.  Students are often forced to shave their heads and wear monks’ or nuns’ robes, CHRO said.

Operated by the military-dominated Ministry for Border Affairs in collaboration with the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the schools function as an education system outside of the mainstream state system. The mainstream education system in Burma is chronically underfunded, and families typically struggle to fill the gap, paying costs such as annual fees, school materials, and supplementary income for underpaid teachers. These economic barriers to education leave impoverished Chin vulnerable to targeted recruitment to the Na Ta La schools. Monks and Buddhist laymen from the Ministry of Religious Affairs are involved in recruitment to the schools.  Entry to the schools is usually free and trainees are offered the incentive of a guaranteed local government position after graduation. According to CHRO, the Na Ta La schools effectively function as a front for a State-sanctioned indoctrination program.

Union Border Affairs Minister Lt.-Gen. Thein Htay has said, “Subject on Union spirit is mainly lectured at the training schools….By inculcating Union Spirit into them, youth forces equipped with strong Union Spirit that [sic] could safeguard Our Three Main National Causes at the risk of their lives…”.

A 20-year old Chin woman who ran away from one such school in May 2011 told CHRO, “As a Christian girl it was not appropriate for me to carry on living at that school so I took off my nuns’ robes and left them there.  I ran to a village, 20 miles away.  The monks from the school came there with soldiers from Light Infantry Battalion 274, looking for me.  They told me,

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This post is in: Press Release

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