While the world watched the military coup d’état in Myanmar (Burma) on 1 February and the mass protests which followed, a chilling Myanmar Army document was discovered instructing soldiers to “punish and break down” dissenting civilians, which would be deemed to include ethnic-minority Christians. Christians in Myanmar have suffered at least six decades of oppression and persecution at the hands of the army, which now has full control over the country.
“We are very concerned, knowing the cruelty of the Tatmadaw [Myanmar Army]. Lord, have mercy on these people,” came the message to Barnabas Fund from one of our project partners.
Thousands of Karen were forced to flee military bombardment in the Papun and Nyaunglebin districts of Karen state in Myanmar (Burma) earlier this year. Men, women and children came under a sudden attack on 1 February from the Tatmadaw, who used artillery to assault defenceless Christian villages.
Villagers fled in such a hurry that washing still hung to dry and taps were left running
The villagers had only moments to escape the deadly shellfire. Some were able to gather a few belongings while others carried children or elderly relatives to safety. Many left in such a hurry that washing still hung to dry and taps were left running. Although they escaped immediate danger, the homeless families had to journey on foot through inhospitable jungle to find a clearing where they could rest.
The following weekend the Tatmadaw sent 20 trucks filled with troops to attack another Karen village in the middle of the night. Mercifully, the villagers had fled their homes just hours before.
A week later, another 212 villagers were displaced from a Christian village in Papun District, during two days of relentless shelling. By mid-February more than 5,300 Karen people, including many Christians, had been displaced by the advancing Tatmadaw in northern Karen State.
Villagers sleep in the jungle for fear of night time attack
These brutal attacks represent only a fraction of the ongoing military assaults on ethnic Karen, Chin and Kachin Christians, the mainly-Muslim Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar have suffered for decades.
In Karen State, the Tatmadaw is forcibly displacing Christians to gain more land for military infrastructure such as roads and bases. In some areas, villagers sleep in the jungle for fear of night time attacks. In one village the inhabitants returned in daytime to conduct a funeral service, only to be forced to flee again as the sound of guns and mortar fire grew closer. Many others, unable to return to their homes, remain in makeshift camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).
The Tatmadaw’s relentless programme of shelling civilian communities violates several ceasefire agreements, including an agreement signed between the Myanmar government and the Karen National Union (KNU) in 2012 and the National Ceasefire Agreement also signed by the KNU in 2015. The ceasefire violations have stepped up since December 2020.
Chin Christians caught in conflict
In March 2020, traumatised Chin Christians fled for their lives after military jets opened fire on their villages, killing at least 28 people and burning many homes.
“We did not expect that the military’s fighter jet would shoot into our village,” said a survivor of the attack. “In one family, seven people were killed instantly and only two teenagers, aged 13 and 15, are left – both of them were injured. Some houses were in flames when we left … Later we heard all the houses in our village are gone.”
Since 2019, Chin Christians have been caught in the middle of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army, a rebel military force of Buddhists from Rakhine State seeking greater self-governance. The conflict has killed at least 260 civilians and displaced more than 160,000 people. In 2020 thousands of Chin, a mainly-Christian ethnic group, endured severe food shortages for at least six months because government road blockades had cut off food supplies to the area.
Kachin Christians subjected to “ethnic cleansing” leaving 100,000 in crowded IDP camps
For more than ten years many thousands of displaced Kachin Christians have been unable to return to their homes, which lie empty, neglected and overgrown. Deadly landmines pepper the villages and access is forbidden by the Tatmadaw, who warn that they will shoot anyone who enters.
At least 100,000 ethnic Kachin, who are predominantly Christian, remain scattered across more than a hundred IDP camps in Kachin State. Living in crowded conditions and with little sanitation they are at risk of contracting cholera and other diseases, including coronavirus.
One Kachin mother of four said, “The Burmese government is trying to carry out ethnic cleansing of the Kachin people. Whenever they see Kachin civilians they kill them. If they see a Kachin woman they will rape her, even a pregnant woman.”
The “persecutory intent” and “ethnic cleansing” tactics used by the Tatmadaw against the Kachin were condemned in a 2018 United Nations Human Rights Council report that included many testimonies of torture, rape and other abuses by military personnel.
Tatmadaw seize control in Myanmar once again in military coup
The attacks in Papun and Nyaunglebin came the same day as the Tatmadaw executed a coup, overthrowing the democratically-elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). At the time of writing, Commander-in-Chief of Defence Services, Min Aung Hlaing, now heads the new military regime.
The coup followed around a decade of democratic reforms that had loosened – but not broken – the Tatmadaw’s grip on political power. Myanmar was subject to rule by military regime from 1962 to 2011, and pro-democracy protests in 1988 and again in 2007 were met with brutal repression. Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest from 1989 to 2010.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in 2010 marked the beginning of Myanmar’s transition towards something like democracy. In 2015 the country’s first free elections for a quarter of a century were held, resulting in a majority for the NLD and placing Aung San Suu Kyi in national leadership as State Counsellor. This majority was increased at the November 2020 election.
The election results, combined with the NLD’s threats to reduce military power by amending the constitution, led the Tatmadaw to once again seize control. On the pretext of electoral irregularities, military vehicles swept into the capital in the early hours of the morning of 1 February, the day before the new government had been due to be sworn in. Military leaders declared a year-long state of emergency and Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were among the first of key political figures arrested. The coup has been condemned internationally.
Weeks of protests culminated with the military killing at least 138 civilians
Weeks of protests followed the coup. Hundreds of thousands gathered in cities such as Yangon and Mandalay as well as the capital Naypyidaw, defying orders to disperse. Protesters blockaded major roads and disrupted traffic. Doctors and nurses, civil servants and teachers went on strike. Opposition political parties – including those representing ethnic minority groups – have refused to participate with the new military regime in government.
In Tha Ton District, Karen State, over 700 people gathered in protest against the Tatmadaw base in their village, opposing the coup and demanding an end to the killing of civilians and the ceasefire violations which had displaced so many.
Civilian protesters in Kachin State were beaten, shot with rubber bullets, and arrested according to local reports.
The military blocked internet and mobile phone access to hinder communication between protesters and restrict contact with the outside world.
At time of writing, an estimated 138 protesters and other civilians, including children, have been killed by the police and soldiers who, sometimes without warning, fired a mixture of tear gas, rubber bullets and live rounds into the crowds.
Soldiers ordered to “punish and break down” civilians after coup
Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, which was widely criticised by the international community for denying the Tatmadaw’s persecution of the mainly-Muslim Rohingya, had always remained significantly under military control.
The constitution reserves at least 25% of legislative seats in parliament for the military, which means it can effectively block any legislation not in military interests. In March 2020, military members blocked democratic reform amendments proposed by the NLD that would have reduced military parliamentary presence. Concerns are growing that total military rule could lead to even more extreme persecution of minorities, with the restrictions of even a semblance of democratic governance removed.
Evidence of a step-change in military tactics came soon after the coup, when a document came to light in mid-February instructing soldiers to “punish and break down” ethnic-minority Christians and other civilians deemed to be against the military regime, or even appearing critical of it in social media posts.
The official document listed a sequence of actions that military personnel should take including firing a 12mm weapon (equivalent to a powerful machine gun) at individuals or using a 38mm weapon (a gun capable of launching grenades) on groups of civilians. The directives included special instructions to round up any dissenting civilian doctors and nurses and to report on any local leaders who were not fully co-operating with the military.
The use of live ammunition against protesters and the resulting deaths and injuries seem to indicate implementation of these instructions. The use of lethal force, as well as non-lethal means including tear gas and stun grenades, was “strongly condemned” by the United Nations. UN human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani stated, “The people of Myanmar have the right to assemble peacefully and demand the restoration of democracy.”
A crucial time for prayer for Myanmar
It continues to be a tense and dangerous time in Myanmar. At the time of writing, Barnabas contacts had just reported further escalations in conflict between the Tatmadaw and insurgent military groups and called for urgent prayer.
Our contacts told us more and more Christian families are on the run, taking refuge in the jungle without food and lacking other basic needs. “Please pray for the safety of local Christian workers who are trying to reach and help believers hiding in the dense jungle, despite the severe risks. Ask for divine intervention and de-escalation of conflict,” they said.
Humanly speaking, the situation in Myanmar appears bleak, and Christian and other minorities seem set to endure even harsher persecution under the military regime.
But God is working all things together for good for His people, even in the desperate difficulties so many are facing in Myanmar. As we pray for an end to the violence and for the restoration of democratic government in Myanmar, we also ask that our Christian family will be given strength to hold fast in their faith in the face of such peril and throughout this time of national trial.