WEA-RLC Research and Analysis Report — 02/2016
February 29, 2016
Burma, a nation that was under military rule for decades, will now be led by democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy party swept the election last year, ending the domination of the military-backed Union Solidarity Development Party. But this alone may not bring any significant improvement in the lives of Christians, the majority of who live in conflict zones.
The 2008 constitution of Burma, officially known as Myanmar, bars Suu Kyi from presidency because her late husband was British and her two sons are foreign nationals. This is not the main concern, though, as she is likely to appoint a proxy president and officially assume the role of a minister. The real issue, instead, is that despite being at the helm of the new government, Suu Kyi will have little control over the peace process.
The constitution gives the military, which is not accountable to the civilian government, exclusive authority over the ministries of defense, home affairs (interior) and border affairs – the ministries which have been involved in the ongoing – seemingly make-believe – efforts towards resolving the conflicts.
The constitution also states that the military shall appoint 25 percent of the members of the legislative bodies, including the national parliament, ruling out any constitutional amendment – which requires ‘yes’ votes by at least 75 percent of the national legislators.
While Burma’s politics has been dominated by the ethnic Burman majority, most of the country’s estimated 4 million Christians are from ethnic minorities who live in states along the country’s borders with China, Thailand and India. For example, the ethnic Chin people from Chin state and ethnic Kachin people from Kachin state are predominantly Christian. A significant number of the ethnic Karen people are also Christian.
The border states have been the scene of the world’s longest running civil wars. Ethnic minority groups have been fighting for greater autonomy in their respective states and resisting the military’s efforts to assimilate them into the majority Burman culture ever since Burma achieved independence from British rule in 1948.
Sections of the ethnic minorities have formed their own armies to resist attacks by military personnel – which are often carried out without any provocation. Military’s attacks include landmine explosions, rape of women, indiscriminate killing of people and forced displacement.
The Christians who live elsewhere in the country, such as in Yangon and Mandalay, will also continue to face threats, mostly by the Patriotic Association of Myanmar, abbreviated in the local language as “Ma Ba Tha,” which is led by Ashin Wirathu Thera, a monk who once described himself as the “bin Laden” of Buddhism. The group comprises influential Buddhist monks and nuns.
The Ma Ba Tha lobbied the former quasi-civilian USDP government for passage of laws that restrict religious conversions and interfaith marriage.
The interfaith marriage legislation restricts a Buddhist woman from marrying a partner outside of her religion, unless the man converts to Buddhism.
The conversion law allows the state to decide who may convert to another religion and who may not. The law calls for the formation of “registration boards” in townships with the jurisdiction to eapprove” religious conversions. Those seeking to convert are required to submit an application with their personal details as well as to state the reason for their conversion. The board, with the presence of at least four of its members, will then interview the applicant to “determine” within 90 days if the intention to convert is sincere and also “assess” whether the conversion is voluntary. Only after the board grants its approval will an applicant be issued a certificate of conversion, which will then have to be reported to local immigration authorities by the applicant.
The law also states that no one below the age of 18 can convert from the faith she or he was born. Besides, the legislation outlaws conversions done “with intent to insult or damage any other religion,” and “forced or coerced” conversion. These terms have been left to be defined by authorities by their own discretion.
Those found guilty of violating any prohibition will be subject to a penalty of up to two years of imprisonment and a fine of up to 200,000 kyats ($200).
In a pragmatic move, Suu Kyi chose not to oppose or speak much against the Ma Ba Tha during the election. Therefore, members of this group are likely to continue to target minorities despite the change in the government. Moreover, Suu Kyi will need to preempt any major unrest during her party’s governance to remain in power.
In this situation, foreign powers can help. One way could by not lifting all sanctions.
Sanctions on Burma under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a U.S. federal law, are due for renewal in the next few months. While some companies have already been taken off the black list under this law, business associations in both Burma and the United States recently wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, urging them to let the sanctions lapse for all companies and individuals.
However, such a decision needs to be opposed.
Officials in the United States should link the lifting of remaining sanctions to the degree of constitutional reforms and the success of the peace process.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.
This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.