The world must act to protect this largely Christian minority. Its suffering has been ignored for too long
While the world watched – but failed to prevent – the genocide of Burma’s Muslim Rohingyas, further crimes against humanity have been perpetrated elsewhere in the country, away from the international spotlight. Burma’s generals have intensified their assault against the predominantly Christian Kachin, as well as the Buddhist Shan ethnic groups, in northern Burma, with devastating consequences.
Last week, the veil was finally lifted on Burma’s catalogue of gross human rights violations in an interim report by a United Nations fact-finding mission, instigated by the UN Human Rights Council.
While the inquiry accuses the generals of genocide against the Rohingyas, it also concludes that abuses committed against the Kachin and Shan “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law”. These crimes include murder, imprisonment, enforced disappearance, torture, rape, sexual violence, persecution and enslavement.
Seven years after the Burmese army broke a 17-year ceasefire with the Kachin armed resistance group, known as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), more than 106,000 civilians are displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states. A new report by the human rights group Fortify Rights, published four days after the UN’s report, accuses the military and civilian governments in Burma of colluding to “weaponise the denial of humanitarian aid to Kachin state”. The report, called “They Block Everything”, accuses the military and civilian governments of colluding to restrict aid to the Kachin state, leaving “tens of thousands of displaced civilians without adequate access to food, healthcare and shelter”.
The conflict between the Burmese army and the Kachin broke out in 1961, partly because the country’s leader at the time, U Nu, wanted to declare Buddhism the state religion. The vast majority of Kachins are Christians, and they objected to the central government’s policies of “Burmanisation” and Buddhist nationalism.
Along with many of the country’s other ethnic groups, the Kachin have been fighting for autonomy in a federal Burma, not – despite the name of its political and armed groups – independence.
A ceasefire was agreed in 1994, but human rights violations, including religious discrimination and human trafficking, continued.
In 2011, conflict resumed and this year it has escalated. In 2018 alone, 7,000 Kachins have been displaced. More than 66 churches have been destroyed since 2011, according to the Kachin Baptist Convention.
On December 3, 2016, St Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Mongkoe Township was hit by airstrikes, and two Kachin Baptists, Dumdaw Nawng Lat and Langjaw Gam Seng, were later jailed for taking journalists to see evidence of the bombing. On another occasion, Burmese military jets bombed the Kachin Baptist Mission School in Bawmwang village. The army has also attacked a Catholic church in Hpakant township, firing bullets and grenades. At the end of May, thousands of Kachin Catholics marched through the state capital, Myitkyina, led by their bishop, Francis Daw Tang, to pray and protest for peace.
While the majority of Kachins are Baptist, there is a sizeable Catholic population, and the Church is deeply involved in responding to the crisis. Several camps for internally displaced people are run by Catholics, and the three bishops of dioceses affected by the conflict – Myitkyina, Bamaw and Lashio – are outspoken. Earlier this year, at their ad limina meeting with Pope Francis, they highlighted the suffering of the Kachin, and appealed for the Pope’s prayers. “We would like to request on behalf of all Kachins, and all people from Myanmar, peace and justice,” Bishop Daw Tang told Vatican News.
Five years ago, I met the wife of one Kachin political prisoner. I will never forget her words: “When I visited my husband, his whole face was wounded. He was covered in blood, and his nose was broken. He had faced so many different kinds of torture during interrogation. An iron bar was rubbed along his legs. He was forced to engage in homosexual sex, and forced to dance the traditional Kachin dance. He was told that, as he was a Christian, he should kneel on very sharp stones with his arms outstretched like Christ on the Cross, and then the others were forced to dance around him. He was beaten on his hands and arms. Police took off his clothes, and asked the men to have sex with each other. When they refused, they were beaten and forced to do it.”
Meeting internally displaced Kachin people a year ago, I asked if they had a message for the world. “We just want to go home,” they said.
For years, the suffering of the Kachin has gone largely unreported. The UN report has helped to change that. The crimes they, along with others in Burma, have endured for decades are, as the UN says, “shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them”.
The military’s “contempt for human life, integrity and freedom, and for international law generally, should be a cause of concern for the entire population”. It should be a concern for the international community too, which must now act to end impunity and bring the perpetrators of crimes against humanity to justice.
Benedict Rogers is East Asia Team Leader at CSW, and author of From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church