1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Religious minorities face persecution in Myanmar

October 14, 2010

Human rights groups say that the ruling junta in Myanmar (Burma) is increasingly persecuting religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims.

Children of the predominantly Christian Kachin minority outside a Catholic church in the town of Laiza
Children of the mainly Christian Kachin minority outside a church in the town of LaizaImage: AP

There are about a hundred ethnic minority groups in Myanmar. Many of them have long been demanding self-determination and have launched armed struggles against the army. For example, many Karen, who live in southeastern Myanmar, have joined the militant Karen National Union, which is led by Christians, says Martin Petrich from human rights watchdog Amnesty International.

A Karen woman smoking a pipe
A Karen womanImage: AP

"Many Karen live near the border with Thailand, where they face brutal repression. Because there is an ongoing war against the group, their villages are often raided; the men are abducted and used as porters, women are raped, children killed." About 150,000 Karen have fled to Thailand. Human rights groups estimate that half of them are Christians.

Religious symbols targeted

The plight of the Chin in western Myanmar is similar. Many of them have become fighters of the "Chin National Front". 100,000 Chin are said to have fled to neighboring India. The junta does not persecute Christians because of their religion but rather because they support the different ethnic insurgencies.

However, the military does target religious symbols to demonstrate its power, says David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch. "They'll say 'we’ll burn down your church', or 'we won’t allow you to build a church'. It is all about basically saying to the civilians that they live under army control, so the army can do whatever they want with them. So religious persecution is just one method by which the army controls and terrorizes the local population."

Muslim minority not recognized as citizens

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh
Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees have fled to BangladeshImage: DW

Out of Myanmar's overall population of 55 million, about six percent are Christians and four percent Muslims. The Muslim Rohingya minority in southwestern Myanmar is perhaps suffering the most among all ethnic groups in the country. Human rights groups have documented severe rights violations including dispossession, torture, forced labor and rape.

The regime does not even recognize the Rohingya as citizens of Myanmar. "Muslims mostly face the problem that they are made scapegoats for domestic problems whenever there is a crisis, for example after 9/11," says Bernd Zoellner, an expert on Myanmar at Hamburg University.

Pressure to convert to Buddhism

To some extent, religious and ethnic conflict lines are blurred in Myanmar. The military rulers belong to the majority Burman ethnic group, also known as Bamar. And they also use Buddhism, the majority religion, to prop up their rule, says David Mathieson from Human Rights Watch. "There are a lot of stories of people who - either in the military or in the public service or even in business - find that their career is coming to a hold at a certain level if the do not convert to Buddhism."

Myanmar's new constitution of 2008 forbids discrimination on ethnic or religious grounds. But it also mentions that misusing religion for political ends is forbidden. Rights groups argue that this paragraph paves the way for persecuting religious minorities, as any public activity can easily be declared political.

Author: Ana Lehmann (tb)
Editor: Arun Chowdhury