Burma: what will NLD victory mean for religious minorities?

World Watch Monitor reports that Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has won a landslide victory in the first freely-contested election in 25 years, winning the needed two-thirds of the vote to enable it to nominate the country’s new President.

Even though she herself is barred from that role, Suu Kyi has made it clear she will be closely involved in running the government, though it’s not expected all its members will be announced till next February. She will have to negotiate very carefully with the military, who hold 25% of the seats in Parliament: these were not able to be contested in the election.

Her new government inherits many pressing issues, not least that of the nation’s minorities, including the Rohingya Muslims, but also ethnic groups who are majority Christian, including the Kachin and Chin. Some, such as the Karen, have a sizeable Christian population.

The military government had continued a campaign of oppression against ethnic minorities. Operation World, a Christian missionary organisation, calls Burma “a deeply fractured nation on a political and especially ethnic level”. The conflict zones span thousands of miles along the country’s borders. Some of the world’s longest-running civil wars continue here. These borderlands are where the majority of Burma’s Christians live.

Now Burma’s Christians are cautiously hopeful. World Watch Monitor asked Burmese Christians what the election result will mean for them.

“This election is important for Christians because we have been under dictatorship for over 60 years,” Rev. Dr. Hkalam Samson, General Secretary of Kachin Baptist Convention, said.

“If we have a good government in Burma, Christians may have a chance to share the Gospel publically,” said Rev. Dr. Naing Thang, Director of the Religious Liberty Commission and President of the Reformation Theological Seminary.

“The 2008 Constitution indirectly mentions that Buddhism is the state religion,” Samson added.

“The majority of Christians in Burma are from ethnic minorities. The ethnics [minorities] in Burma live along the country’s borders. We need permission for church buildings in those areas. And we also need special permission for any celebration. If I preach openly in a market or in other areas [outside of the church], they can arrest me, because we are allowed to preach [only] on Sundays [and inside churches].”

“I heard that they [a new Buddhist organisation, the Patriotic Association of Burma, locally known as ‘Ma Ba Tha’ and led by influential Buddhist monks supportive of the ruling party] said ‘double C virus’ is very dangerous for them, and they will try to suppress it. One ‘C’ for their Chin ethnicity, and one ‘C’ for their Christian faith,” said Thang.

Although Aung San Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from the presidency as she has foreign family members, she has said she will be the “de facto” president. Should Christians be optimistic now?

“I met her in 2012 in Myitkyina [the capital of Kachin state], and I asked her a question: ‘What is your position on the ethnic conflict issue?’” Samson recalled. “And she said it is too early for her to respond. And we had at that time about 100,000 IDPs [internally displaced people, due to attacks by the military]. We wanted her to visit IDPs and say some encouraging words. But she didn’t visit IDP camps. So this kind of an answer and her action doesn’t make us very happy. Ethnic minorities [despite NLD’s rule] may have the same situation as before. We believe that the international community will push our government to focus on the ethnic issue.”

World Watch Monitor also heard from Daniel Ottenberg, analyst at the World Watch Research Unit of Open Doors International, which listed Burma as the 25th most difficult country in the world to live as a Christian.

He explains: “While the very fact that the elections were held undisturbed is encouraging, there are several important caveats to keep in mind which affect religious minorities, including Christians. Firstly, the military still holds 25% of parliamentary seats reserved for it. This means the army will remain the decisive factor determining which political direction the country will steer. Secondly, the clashes with ethnic minorities – among others in Christian Kachin and Shan States – continue unabated, and a solution is still far from visible. Thirdly, the army will still occupy the most influential posts such as Ministry of the Interior, Defence and Border Affairs.”

He continues: “Several hundred thousand ethnic minority votes were excluded from the election process right from the start: the Muslim minority’s citizens’ rights (and hence registration as voters) were denied, and in the case of Christian minorities complete village tracts were excluded from voting due to security issues.

“Finally, it remains to be seen how the increasingly radical Buddhist groups like the Ma Ba Tha will react. They had supported the ruling military-backed party very openly, naming as one reason their support in introducing the Laws on the Protection of Race and Religion in August. Therefore it’s too early to draw conclusions about the full outcome of these elections. While the beginning can be considered encouraging, observers will need to wait patiently, so that – as one observer recently put it – when international media moves on to new stories Burma is not left to sink into oblivion again.”