Disappearance of two men highlights religious oppression and persecution in Buddhist-majority nation
By Anna K. Poole
(WNS)–Myanmar’s religious climate isn’t getting any warmer. As violence mounts in the Buddhist-majority nation, formerly known as Burma, the country’s military is increasingly under fire for human rights abuses, most recently the forced disappearance of two Baptist church leaders.
In November, two men connected to the Kachin Baptist Convention, youth pastor Langjaw Gam Seng and associate pastor Dumdaw Nawng Lat, reportedly agreed to take journalists to see and photograph the rubble of a Catholic church. The building was hit by airstrikes in a clash between Myanmar’s military and the Brotherhood of the Northern Alliance, an ethnic insurgent group. A few weeks later, the Burmese army summoned the men to a military base in northern Shan state, a rural region pocked with guerrilla fighting.
The two pastors disappeared after the meeting, and according to Amnesty International, they “may have been detained by Myanmar authorities for their role in organizing a visit by journalists [to the church].”
The pastors were last seen on Christmas Eve, and the timing is not lost on local church leaders, who call the incident an example of unabashed religious oppression.
“There is this phenomenon called a ‘Christmas truce’ where two warring parties temporarily and unofficially halt their fire. But for the Burmese army, it is their way of insulting and undermining our Christian faith,” Rev. Hkalam Samson, chairman of the Kachin Baptist Convention, told The Irawaddy.
The Burmese army denies involvement in the disappearance of the two pastors, but government officials will not respond to questions from human rights groups or the men’s families.
“The apparent enforced disappearance of these two Christian leaders has created a climate of fear and terror in Northern Shan State,” said Matthew Smith, chief executive officer of Fortify Rights.
The term “enforced disappearance” refers to a deliberately concealed abduction not acknowledged by government officials. The official denial of responsibility places victims at significant risk.
“Enforced disappearances violate various rights protected under international law, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution,” according to Human Rights Watch.
This isn’t the first crime report against Myanmar’s army. Civil society organizations “have documented unlawful killings, torture, rape, forced labor, and other abuses committed by Burmese military forces against civilians in Northern Shan and Kachin States,” according to a recent joint statement from Human Rights Watch and Fortify Rights.
The Kachin Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Christian denomination. While the population remains overwhelmingly Buddhist, like the rest of the nation, almost 10 percent of the state’s residents claim Christianity.
In 2015, two young women serving as volunteer teachers with the convention were brutally raped and murdered in Shan state. Locals immediately blamed the Burmese army, and called for an investigation. Two years later, the case remains unsolved, with no charges brought against the military.
Since November, northern Myanmar has erupted with clashes between the Burmese military and ethnic guerrilla fighters, triggering the flight of at least 3,000 civilians across the northern border into China. To the west, persecuted Rohingya Muslims have staged an armed resistance against Burmese security forces, but the backlash has driven at least 65,000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh.