On Monday, we will hold a congressional briefing at the Senate offices about the worsening situation facing Christians in Myanmar, particularly the Chin people. We hope that the US government will determine the attacks on Christians in Myanmar as war crimes and crimes against humanity, and that American Christians will speak out for their brothers and sisters in the country.
Christian ethnic minorities in Myanmar (also known as Burma) have long faced religious persecution and ethnic discrimination due to Buddhist nationalism in the country. This has only worsened after the military overthrew Myanmar’s democratically elected government on February 1, 2021. Since then, the military, known as the Tatmadaw, has steadily ramped up violence against its own citizens, firing on unarmed protesters in the streets of Yangon. By the end of 2021, it was waging an all-out war against civilians in the countryside.
Historically, Myanmar’s ethnic and religious minorities have been the targets of the most horrific military atrocities. In 2017 and 2018, the Tatmadaw committed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people that killed thousands and forced 700,000 to flee to Bangladesh. The Biden administration rightly labeled the Tatmadaw’s actions as genocide and crimes against humanity.
Today, the Tatmadaw specifically targets Christians from ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Karen, and Karenni. The Baptist World Alliance, World Council of Churches, Open Doors, and other Christian leaders have called for action on the military junta’s persecution of Christians. It is past time for the Biden administration to ensure accountability, protect Myanmar’s persecuted Christians, and provide support for the democratic resistance.
A Christian people group in a heavily Buddhist nation
Every year since Congress passed the Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the State Department has designated Myanmar as a “Country of Particular Concern” for violations of religious freedom. Buddhists make up 90 percent of the population, according to the 2014 census, while Christians make up 6 percent. Chin State, which is likely more than 85 percent Christian, has faced decades of religious persecution at the hands of the military. This includes arbitrary arrests of Christians, forced labor, rape, and the destruction of churches. In some cases, the military demolished Christian crosses erected by the Chin on mountaintops as an expression of faith and replaced them with Buddhist pagodas.
American Baptist missionaries arrived in Chinland in 1899 and succeeded in converting the first Chin Christians. The Christian faith would continue to spread throughout the community over the coming years, and in 1907, the Chin Hills Baptist Association was founded. Catholicism and other Protestant denominations also took hold, including Presbyterianism, Methodism, and Pentecostalism.
In 1961, Burmese Prime Minister U Nu briefly established Buddhism as the state religion with a nationalist slogan, “to be a Burmese is to be a Buddhist.” Then, after the first coup the following year, the military dictator Ne Win began to discriminate against ethnic minority Christians, nationalizing religious institutions across Myanmar and treating Christianity as a foreign, malign influence. In 1966, the dictatorship deported Robert Johnson, the last American Baptist missionary to the Chin people. Other foreign missionaries were also forced to leave the country. For the past several decades, the Chin National Front (CNF) and their armed wing, the Chin National Army (CNA), have led an armed resistance to seek greater autonomy for its people.
Increased violence since the coup
After the 2021 coup, Chin State quickly emerged as one of Myanmar’s resistance strongholds, with newly formed armed groups such as the Chinland Defense Force and the Chin National Defense Force working alongside veterans of the CNF and CNA to oppose the Tatmadaw. As a result, the Tatmadaw has launched brutal attacks against the state’s civilian population, specifically targeting Christian leaders and places of worship.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the violence has forced 55,000 mostly Chin refugees to flee across the border to India, while 47,200 remain internally displaced within the state.
The destruction of Thantlang Town in Chin State was one of the military’s most egregious acts. From late 2021 to early 2022, the Tatmadaw conducted a campaign of mass arson in the town, displacing the entire population of 10,000. On his way to fight the fires, Pastor Cung Biak Hum of Thantlang’s historic Centenary Baptist Church was killed by the military. Soldiers then cut off his finger and stole his wedding ring. In May 2022, the Tatmadaw destroyed Johnson Memorial Baptist Church, built in memory of the aforementioned Robert Johnson. Thantlang Baptist Church, with a congregation of 3,000 worshippers, was occupied and used as a base before being burned to the ground on June 9, 2022.
In total, all but one of the town’s 22 churches were destroyed by the military, including a Catholic church, a Methodist Church, a Presbyterian Church of Myanmar, an Assembly of God church, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and a United Pentecostal Church. As of 2023, only the Olive Baptist Church has escaped destruction.
On July 16, soldiers based in Mindat in Chin State, the first ethnic minority town to be placed under martial law, assaulted Presbyterian pastor Htang Kay On and abducted three church deacons—Chai Kay, Hon Chway, and Hon Kay. The deacons were arrested on the compound of the Presbyterian Church as they assisted internally displaced people and are presumed dead in Tatmadaw custody.
With large portions of Chin State outside its control, the Tatmadaw has resorted to airstrikes against villages and civilian infrastructure. In August, the military struck Rathlo in northeast Chin State, where the village church was destroyed. In another attack in the nearby town of Hakha days later, the Tatmadaw targeted the historic Hakha Baptist Church compound built by the American missionaries, damaging the senior pastor’s residence.
Beyond Chin State’s Christians
The Tatmadaw has further increased its persecution of Christians across Myanmar. In Sagaing Region, which borders Chin State, the Tatmadaw targeted historic Catholic villages it accused of supporting the resistance. In November 2022, the military burned down hundreds of homes, a church, and a school in the village of Mon Hla, hometown of Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon and Archbishop Marco Tin Way of Mandalay. In January, the Tatmadaw burned down the 129-year-old Assumption Church in the village of Chan Thar.
Meanwhile, the post-coup court system is “overwhelmingly subservient to the military,” according to the human rights group International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). This can be seen in cases of Christians being imprisoned under false charges, such as Thian Lian Sang, a Chin pastor at Falam Baptist Church in Mandalay Region. Authorities sentenced Sang to 23 years in prison on charges of rebellion against the military and providing weapons to rebels on December 7, 2022.
Two days earlier at the Mandalay Airport, the Tatmadaw arrested Hkalam Samson, an ethnic Kachin Christian leader and advocate for religious freedom, on his way to Thailand for medical treatment. Samson had been part of a delegation that met with President Donald Trump at the White House in 2019.
Throughout his detention in a prison in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina, Samson’s wife reported that the military prevented him from receiving her deliveries of food and medicine. A secret military court sentenced Samson to six years in prison on April 7 on false charges of terrorism, unlawful association, and inciting opposition to the regime. Elsewhere in the Christian areas of Karen and Karenni States, similar persecution continues.
While Christians face special persecution as a religious minority, the Tatmadaw has also destroyed Buddhist places of worship in its campaign of terror against civilians. The ICJ counts at least 94 Buddhist places of worship damaged in the past two years. As with Christian churches, the military has commandeered Buddhist buildings for sacrilegious purposes. In October 2022, the Tatmadaw used a Buddhist monastery in Monywa in Sagaing Region as a detention facility to arbitrarily detain and beat 100 civilians.
How the US can help
What can the Biden administration do to help Myanmar’s Christians? First, the administration should formally designate the Tatmadaw’s atrocities against Christians as war crimes and crimes against humanity. Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a similar determination of genocide regarding the Tatmadaw’s violent expulsion of the Rohingya in 2017 and 2018. This would be a first step toward accountability for the military junta and could mobilize the international community to take further action, such as sanctions or referral to international legal bodies.
The Biden administration should also make more serious efforts to support Myanmar’s democratic resistance. The 2023 spending bill, which passed with bipartisan support, authorizes the United States to provide pro-democracy forces with up to $136 million in non-lethal aid and humanitarian assistance. The Burma Act of 2022 explicitly names eligible groups such as the National Unity Government (NUG); the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), made up of legislators elected in 2020; the People’s Defense Forces; and the Ethnic Armed Organizations. Yet they have not received significant non-lethal aid.
Finally, while the administration has levied sanctions against key military-controlled banks and the sale of jet fuel for Burmese warplanes, it has refrained from sanctioning other resources that help prop up the Tatmadaw. The United States should also sanction the state-owned Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise, which helps the junta fund its war crimes through upward of one billion dollars in annual revenue.
For Christians, the global church should advocate for the people of Myanmar. Advocacy was central to the life of the prophets and to the ministry of Jesus. The church’s prophetic and apostolic advocacy means its solidarity with suffering people and its resistance to oppressors for liberation.
Zo Tum Hmung and John Indergaard are the executive director and project and advocacy coordinator, respectively, of the Chin Association of Maryland.
David Thang Moe is a Henry H. Rice Postdoc Associate and lecturer of Southeast Asian Studies at Yale University. As a public theologian and a prophetic advocate for ethnic minorities, he has frequently spoken on Myanmar, Buddhist nationalism, and ethnic conflict at leading universities around the world.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.