Teenagers shot point-blank by rifles, gang-rapes of women and children, babies thrown into the Bay of Bengal – it sounds like a horror movie – but nearly a million minority Muslims face this threat in western Myanmar. While the current target is the Rohingya people, heinous government attacks in this South-Asian country – formerly known as Burma – should worry any religious minority.
UN officials have pointed to ‘ethnic cleansing’. In a mere week, the number of Rohingya refugees has spiked to 160,000 people. More than 1,000 people are reportedly dead while tens of thousands cling to overcrowded boats, taking their chances on the treacherous trip across the water. Often labeled as the most persecuted minority in the world, Rohingya Muslims are stateless. Though their ancestry dates back centuries, because they have Bengali backgrounds, they are treated as illegal citizens. They’re mostly confined to the western state of Rakhine, with limited freedom of movement and no access to state healthcare, education or even jobs. The Rakhine riots of 2012 started a rash bout of violence that continues today with many experts warning of genocide.
Myanmar is a majority-Buddhist state with staunch nationalists leading the charge against the Rohingya. Myanmar’s government is so threatened by their existence that they wouldn’t even include them in their 2014 census of the country. This was the first census in the country in 30 years and the Rohingya did not make the list. What we do know from that census is that 88% of the country is Buddhist and the Christian minority is on the rise. From 4.9% in 1983 to 6.2% in 2014, there are more than 3 million Christians in Myanmar. The majority of Christians live in 3 areas – Chin, Kachin and Shan.
Besides the horrific human rights violations, if identifying as a strictly Buddhist nation has led to the persecution of the Rohingya peoples then Christians should also be worried. Christian communities have reported being wary of the heavy military presence in their areas brought about by zealous Buddhists. World Watch Monitor reports that documented cases of sexual assault against Christians by Myanmar government troops are not being brought to justice. Last April, News Republic reports that a Buddhist shrine was erected on church grounds to inflame tensions. And just in March, TRT World, reports that 100,000 Christians fled Myanmar to Malaysia because of persecution. Open Doors USA says that hard line Buddhist monks, part of the Ma Ba Tha, helped usher in laws of ‘protection of race and religion,’ which make it difficult for anyone to convert or even marry someone from a different religious group.
Myanmar currently ranks 28th out of the top 50 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith.
Though Myanmar has a history of violence between the government and ethnic minorities, many thought the landslide victory of human rights hero Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 would help ease tensions. The Nobel Peace Laureate is internationally known for her house-arrest fight for democracy; her famous slogan, ‘please use your liberty to promote ours,’ made her a global symbol of defiance.
Because her children are foreign nationals, Suu Kyi can never be President, but she is the country’s de facto leader. Her silence on the recent spate of violence against the Rohingya people has stunned the international community. Even with fellow Nobel Laureates like Desmond Tutu and Malala Yousafzai calling for her voice, she remains quiet.
Pope Francis has even weighed into the situation expressing his ‘closeness’ to the Muslim minority group, asking the Lord to raise up good men and women to help them. The Pope, a tireless advocate for refugees, plans to visit Myanmar this fall.
And so, the waiting game continues – for a woman in the highest seat of Myanmar power to raise her discontent. While Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence is undoubtedly deafening to the Rohingya, it should really be a warning sign to any ethnic or religious minority in Myanmar, that they may not be safe.