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Georg Evers {*}

Calm after the Storm?

The Regime and the Religious Communities in Burma


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 12/2007, P. 615-619
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    After the protests against the military regime in autumn and their violent repression Burma again disappeared from the headlines. In this predominantly Buddhist country the Christians are a small minority that is mainly recruited from the tribal population. The Catholic Church in Burma is to a large extent isolated in the World Church.


Burma, or Myanmar, as it is officially to be called according to the will of the military government ruling the country, is rarely the focus of world public and the international media. German tourism companies advertise with the image of the "Land of Temples and Pagodas" for their package tours, and the Germans are also the largest group of foreign tourists, whose total number is very modest and will hardly increase after the events of recent weeks. Admittedly, the land on the river Irawadi since 1997 belongs to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but internationally it is rather isolated.

The pictures of the great wave of protest that broke out in Burma in August, as initially monks and then large parts of the population took to the streets, came very surprisingly and for a few days dominated the media all over the world. The trigger for the protest movement was the decision of the military government, announced on 15 August 2007, to stop the subsidy for fuel. Already four days later there were street protests in the former capital Rangoon, which at first were organized and carried out by members of the opposition movement "Students of the 88 Generation".


The Monks Took to the Streets

The military responded with arrests of the leaders of the protest groups. At first it seemed as if law and order was restored within the angry population. That then Buddhist monks took to the streets happened rather unexpectedly for the military junta. The extent of the protest marches and the strong support that the monks got from the population was not foreseeable and made those in power feel unsure; they did not immediately know how to react.

The monks' demonstrations began on 5 September in Pakokku in the middle of the country, as a good 600 monks, accompanied by about 1.000 civilians took to the streets to protest against the bad living conditions. A large demonstration was then held on 22 September in Rangoon, as monks went to the house of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, where they for a brief moment could meet the lady politician held for years in house arrest. Everywhere in the country the demonstrations increased and on 24 September they reached their peak nationwide. In Rangoon far more than 100.000 people took to the streets after the monks, who first had demonstrated alone, had asked the population to take part in the protests.



The military and squads of thugs hired by the government showed increased presence, but for the time being restrained from actions against the demonstrators. When the curfew imposed by the Junta and the prohibition against assemblies went unheeded the military on 25 September began to take violent actions against the demonstrations. Security forces beat the demonstrators, used water canons with tear gas, fired first warning shots into the air and probably also shot directly at demonstrators. On that occasion only on 25 September 2007 at least four people, among them also two or three monks are said to have been killed.

Between 25 and 27 September everywhere in the country monasteries were stormed and devastated, the monks beaten and an indeterminate number of them brutally murdered, and up to 5000 monks brought into internment camps. Pictures were shown where one could make out the destroyed furnishings of monasteries. Also traces of blood were to be seen that proved the physical violence against the monks. The central Shwedagon-Pagoda in Rangoon, from which the demonstrations had started, was sealed off by the military.

The UN Security Council, which on 25 September met for an emergency meeting, could - after objections from the People's Republic of China - only agree on a weak appeal, in which the military was called upon not to use violence against the demonstrations. "China protected the Generals" the headlines of the media read, to describe that China wanted to preserve the country so important for it from further actions - such as expansion of trade sanctions - of the international community.


The Generals Control the Country

To understand the demonstrations and riots in Burma during the last months it is necessary to have a look at the history of the recent decades. Since the coup by General Ne Win 45 years ago the country is under a military dictatorship that announced as political program to achieve a "Burmese Way to Socialism". In the following years there was little to be felt of socialism. Admittedly, industrial and commercial companies were nationalized, a measure that ultimately only resulted in corruption and black market. Burma, which until then was the main rice exporting country in the world, had lost this position and the foreign exchange revenue connected with it. In the following decades even the supply of the population with the main food rice became a problem.

In 1987 the once rich country was taken down in the list of the "least developed countries of the World" (LLDC). On the other hand the expenditures on the military, which form more than 50 percent of the public expenses, have grown. While the number of soldiers in 1988 was still at 180.000, it has increased to now 265.000. Also the relocation of the capital, probably more correct of the headquarters of the military, from Rangoon to Nyapyidaw has devoured huge amounts of money. The violent repression of the protest movement of the year 1988, in which large students' demonstrations against the military rule took place, has a lasting effect up to this day. From 1988 until 1991 the universities were closed and all student organizations crushed.


The Work on a New Constitution until today has no Presentable Result

The generals responded to the protests with the establishment of a "State Law and Order Restoration Council" (SLORC). In 1997 this body changed its name and now trades as "State Council for Peace and Development" (SPDC), but this change of name has not caused any change in the repressive policies of the regime. The military's modest attempts to get democratic legitimacy led to national elections in 1990. But when the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi, despite the house arrest imposed on her got a large majority of 80 percent of votes, this result was not recognized by the military. Aung San Suu Kyi, who in 1991 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, has since then - with short breaks - been detained in her home in the University Avenue 54 in a now already 18 years lasting house arrest.

The in 2003 under the promising label: "Roadmap to Democracy" begun work on a new constitution of the country has until today not resulted in anything presentable. Actually a draft is long overdue, on which should be decided in a referendum and then free parliamentary elections should have had to take place. Apart from the economic difficulties also the discontent of the population with the lack of democratization was of great importance in the demonstrations of the last months.

In recent years both the USA and the European Union imposed a series of sanctions on the military regime, which had but little effect with regard to respect of the political leaders for human rights and their ending the violence. Instead the civilian population was affected, since the textile sector, which was the main source of income for many Burmese, completely collapsed. Another reason why the sanctions produced so little effect is that Burma with the People's Republic of China has an economic partner for which violations of human rights are no obstacle when it is about exploiting its political and economic relations. Burma is an important partner for China, because the country is full of natural resources, which are of great significance for the rapidly growing Chinese economy.



Since 1997 Burma is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the members of which so far have very much kept in the background when it was about criticism of human rights abuses by the Burmese military junta. As a matter of principle in this association the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other member countries is in force. At joint meetings of the ASEAN nations with representatives of the European Union, the participation of Burma was always a problem. But in the end the representatives of the EU could only achieve that Than Shwe, the head of the military junta, was not allowed to personally take part in joint conferences, but was very well represented by another member of the junta.

India too maintains close economic relations with Burma and could therefore, if it had the political will, definitely put political pressure on the military regime. But that is hardly the case. On the contrary, in connection with questions of possible sanctions against Burma in November 2007 became known that India had broken the already since 1996 existing arms embargo and had sold to Burma helicopters of the type Dhruv produced in India with European licenses.

As an immediate neighbour also Thailand is interested in Burma in a special way. On the one hand thousands of refugees from the neighbouring country are living in Thailand, which is a big financial burden. On the other hand the Thai government under the now dismissed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had no moral concerns to maintain intensive trade relations with Burma. Thailand fears that a destabilization of the existing regime would let dangerously swell the streams of refugees from Burma to Thailand.


Catholics under State Pressure

The Catholic Church in Burma is with 650.000 believers a small minority of the population of 50 million. Most Catholics belong to the ethnic groups of the Karen, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Kayah. At present there are three archdioceses (Rangoon, Taunggyi and Mandalay), and ten dioceses. With 1.6 million members the Protestant Christians are much stronger. The Baptists are with 900.000 faithful the largest Protestant group. In all the Christians' share of the total population is about five percent, thus they are after the Buddhists the largest religious community, followed by the Muslims, whose share is about four percent of the population.

But for the majority of Burmese applies: To be Burmese means to be Buddhist. With it is expressed that Buddhism, to which 85 percent of the population belong, is the national religion. At the same time it also explains that the Christian mission among the Buddhists has had only little success. The military government discriminates against Christians in many ways. Muslims too experience a similar treatment. Permits for the building of churches are not given or only on conditions. Religious publications are censored and the import of foreign religious books is often impeded. With translations of the Bible and other religious literature the state censors object to the use of certain words and concepts that come from the Buddhist tradition.

In the year 1965 all religious schools had been closed or nationalized. And in the following year all foreign missionaries had to leave the country. Since at that time there were only 77 Burmese priests it meant the loss of almost the entire pastoral staff. In the following years that government intervention proved to be a blessing, because the number of local priests greatly increased and at the same time the number of Catholics tripled within a quarter-century.


Good Ecumenical Relations

In the areas of the ethnic minorities the Christian churches run more than 1500 infant schools, which are tolerated by the military junta since it is not able to keep comparable institutions. And there are in Rangoon and elsewhere several places of training for church trainees, such as priests- and preachers seminaries that can confer academic degrees in philosophy and theology up to Bachelor. The Protestant "Myanmar Institute of Theology" (MIT) in Rangoon is a Christian university, where apart from theology also courses in economics and art are offered. It is true though the degrees of those institutions, which are not recognized but tolerated by the state, are fully recognized only in church circles.

Since 2001 the various activities of Christian social work have been restructured and strengthened by the foundation of a national office of Caritas, which in Burma has the name "Karuna", which in Buddhist terminology means as much as "mercy". In the few years of its existence Karuna has by training of personnel and planning of social services at the national level given considerably new stimuli to the presence of the church in the field of social work.

When there is talk about the persecution of Christians in Burma it is important to note that the military operations of the government are first of all directed against separatist movements within the ethnic minorities from which the majority of Christians in Burma is drawn.



The destruction of villages and the resettlement measures of the government are primarily politically motivated and are less a direct persecution of Christians. But it is also a fact that the Catholic Church in Burma has for years also been isolated within the Federation of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC) and also otherwise is not or only in a very limited way able to join in carrying out many other developments in the World Church.

The efforts of the Vatican to establish diplomatic relations with the government have so far failed. It is true though that on the side of the state there are hardly difficulties with the appointment of bishops by the Pope. And the bishops can usually without problems travel to the traditional Ad-Limina-Visits to Rome. The long-term isolation of the Catholic Church and the reprisals by the government have the effect that the Catholic Church of Burma is rather conservatively orientated, and the bishops with the clergy to a large extent determine the life of the church.

But the training of lay people has made progress in recent years. The participation of lay people and here above all of young people has grown especially in the field of evangelization. There are a number of initiatives in the areas of training catechists, pastoral work for young people, and especially the development of Small Christian Communities. Also in the field of Bible Apostolate there has been great progress. It is noteworthy that here it has come to an ecumenical cooperation with the Protestant Christians. In the "Bible Society of Myanmar" there is since 2001 a Catholic representative in the governing body.

Apart from a few exceptions in certain areas the ecumenical relations between the Christian churches are good at the national level. Already for several years from 28 September to 4 October common ecumenical prayer times have been held, in which is prayed for peace, understanding and development in Burma. Due to the repressive measures of the government one refrained this year from joint prayer services and called upon the faithful to pray privately. For 14 October the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Burma and the Protestant national church council asked the faithful in a joint letter to pray and fast for peace in Burma, a call that was nation-wide complied with in most churches during Sunday services.

On 26 September 2007 the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Burma published a statement in which it calls upon the believers to pray more intensely for the country in the current difficult situation. The bishops point out that the Catholic Church and the hierarchy did not want directly to interfere in the political events. But as citizens of the country the Catholics were free to decide according to their conscience. With it they would be advised by the clergy.

On 28 September Archbishop Charles Bo as Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops' Conference and Archbishop Samuel Mahn San Si Htaj in his capacity as President of the National Council of Churches of Burma made an appeal to General Than Shwe. Referring to the joint prayers held by Catholic and Protestant Christians for the welfare of the fatherland the bishops ask the President to show "fatherly love" in the current tense situation - the English text reads: "commotion" -, to find so a peaceful solution to the problems, so that stability, peace and non-violence can be restored.


Preferential Treatment for Buddhism

The relations between the majority religion of the Buddhists and the other religions are difficult. The reasons for this are primarily not the differences in doctrine and practice but rather that the respective belonging to a religion is often associated with the membership of a particular ethnic group. Most of the Christians in Burma come from ethnic minorities, among which the Christian missionaries could bring about the most conversions. But in response to the Christian missionary work among those groups the Buddhists themselves began to convert members of traditional religions to Buddhism. They then found the support of the military junta that often supported those missionary efforts by pressure and violence.

The one-sided preferential treatment of Buddhism by the military becomes also apparent by the fact that frequently pressure is put on members of other religions to support financially the building of pagodas and by often not quite voluntary working hours. Hence it is understandable that in Burma the interreligious relations are often not problem-free. But the recent demonstrations showed that in the struggle against the illegal regime in the country, the Buddhist monks could experience the support of all religious communities.

The military regime has by preferential treatment and privileges certainly done much to bring the Buddhist Sangha on its side. But this has not succeeded in view of the blatant moral weaknesses and the violence of the military. The Buddhist monks in their entirety have not allowed to be corrupted, and the control measures used by the state-managed "National Coordinating Council for Monks" could not silence the critical voices among the monks.

But the international protests, which on the first weekend in October in many cities around the world expressed in an impressive manner the consternation about the violent measures of the government in Burma, seem to have as good as no effect on those in power.



Apparently the arrests of political opponents, increasingly also of more and more monks went on. In India the Catholic Bishops' Conference tried to put pressure on its own government to become politically involved on the international stage against the violation of human rights. In Hong Kong and in Sri Lanka Buddhist groups protested against the violence in Burma. From Rome Benedict XVI condemned the violent action of the rulers in Burma.


The Resistance is Unbroken

The FABC too delivered a statement on 28 September in which it appeals for peace and understanding in Burma. At an interreligious meeting of religious leaders of various religions in Indonesia on 2 October an appeal to the military junta in Burma was published in which the religious leaders express their dismay at the violence and toll of human lives in Burma and ask for actions of the international community to act as moderating mediators in this conflict.

It is difficult to believe the protestations of the military junta that the more or less symbolic gestures - talks with the opposition, visits by official representatives of the United Nations, and announcements to support a national reconciliation - actually mean a fresh start in the direction of democratization. After all in the past there have been already similar scenarios, but at the end they proved to be only well-directed manipulation by the ruling military junta to react to foreign pressure but only to feign measures that ultimately proved to be empty gestures.

That was the case as Aung San Suu Kyi in July 1995 after six years of house arrest was set free without being able to act politically in the nearly one year lasting time of freedom, and her attempts actively to again engage in politics ended with a re-imposition of the house arrest. As soon as after the lifting of sanctions the international aid money flowed again, the military returned to the old repressive policy.

That's why one also today can only react with the utmost caution and due distrust to the signals given by the military government. The demonstrations showed the regime once again that it was unable to pacify the land and that the resistance within the population, especially among the Buddhist monks is unbroken. Those in power have still the military means to defend their positions. Only time will tell whether the growing international pressure can move the military to concessions and to serious steps of democratization. Soberly considered the signs for it are rather poor.


    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religions. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia assistant in the Institute of Missiology Missio (Aachen). In this capacity he made numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the framework of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC). Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology.


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