Voting in Burma’s historic national election on 8 November 2016 was cancelled in 400 villages in the Kachin and Karen states, where many of the country’s Christians live, due to ongoing security problems. Despite the injustice, “there is hope [that the landslide win for the National League for Democracy (NLD)] will lead to more steps towards freedom, justice and reconciliation in Burma”, wrote a Barnabas Fund partner.
According to Rev. Dr. Naing Thang, Director of the Religious Liberty Commission and President of the Reformation Theological Seminary, “several hundred thousand ethnic minority votes were excluded from the election process right from the start”. Most of Burma’s Christians are from non-Burman ethnic groups. The country’s Rohingya Muslims, who mainly reside in the Rakhine state, suffer extreme discrimination and were also denied the opportunity to vote.
The 135 recognised non-Burman ethnic groups make up approximately 40% of the country’s population and live mainly in the states that border neighbouring Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh. These resource-rich areas have long been conflict zones and hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in these areas and live as internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Ethnic Kachin and Chin are mainly Christian, and many ethnic Karen people are also Christian. Despite the fact that Christians living in capital city Rangoon and other large cities Mandalay and Lashio have freedom to meet together in churches, the Christians living in the ethnic states are oppressed by the Burmese military.
“The [ethnic people groups] … need permission for church buildings,” said Rev. Dr. Naing Thang. “If I preach openly in a market or in other areas [outside a church], they can arrest me, because we are allowed to preach [only] on Sunday [and inside churches].”
A group of nationalist Buddhist monks, known as Ma Ba Tha, talks about the “double C virus” that they are attempting to supress, said Rev. Dr. Naing Thang: “One ‘C’ for their Chin ethnicity, and one ‘C’ for their Christian faith.”
As for the prospects for change, “the Christians in these areas don’t expect that the military will listen to the [National League for Democracy],” said a Barnabas contact. “Attacks continue against the Kachin, Shan and Ta’ang in Northern Burma and, even in ceasefire areas, the Burma Army has not withdrawn its force,” wrote another Barnabas partner. That said, “the elections held [in November] in Burma are a good step”.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won more than two-thirds of the votes in Burma’s first openly contested election in 25 years. According to the constitution, a quarter of the seats in parliament are allocated to the military and the military has control over the appointment of the ministers for Defence, Home Affairs and Border Affairs.
The victorious NLD has secured the right to nominate the country’s president but Burma’s constitution denies Aung San Suu Kyi this position because she has non-Burmese children; her two sons to her late husband are British.