By BosNewsLife Asia Service with reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos
NAYPYIDAW, BURMA (BosNewsLife)– Rights groups urged the world Friday, March 22, to pressure Burma to end a crackdown on ethnic and religious minorities after government troops reportedly killed and raped dozens of mainly Christian civilians while burning hundreds of churches and homes.
In a statement obtained by BosNewsLife, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) said the “international community” should “push ethnic and religious minority rights higher up the reforms agenda for Burma.”
In one of the most reasons incidents, CHRO said a 13 year-old girl was sexually assaulted by a Burma Army soldier in the Paletwa area of southern Chin State. “A ceasefire agreement between the Chin National Front and the government has been in place since January last year, but Chin State remains heavily militarized with more than 54 Burma Army camps,” the group said.
Elsewhere, in predominantly Christian Kachin state, government troops killed at least nine civilians and wounded more than a dozen others in mortar attacks from September 2012 to February, explained the the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT).
Though President Thein Sein announced a unilateral ceasefire in the region, “the Burma Army offensive in Kachin State has continued,” said the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), representing devoted Kachin Christians.
The ongoing war in Kachin State resulted in the destruction of over 200 villages, with 66 churches reportedly damaged and over 100,000 people internally displaced, according to KBC investigators.
CSW, CHRO, Human Rights Watch, and KWAT testified this week about the violence in Burma during a hearing of the Subcommittee on Human Rights at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.
“We welcome the ceasefire agreement, but the international community must recognize that this is only a first step,” said CHRO’s Executive Director Salai Bawi Lian Mang. “So far, there has been no discussion about troop withdrawal from Chin State. As long as there is a heavy military presence, we expect human rights abuses to continue,” the official explained at the hearing.
Speaking about Chin State, CHRO’s Program Director Salai Za Uk Ling told the Subcommittee that ethnic Chin Christian children and youth “are coerced” to convert to Buddhism at military-run ‘youth development training schools’.
“Discrimination on grounds of religion and ethnicity is both deep-rooted and institutionalized,” within the army, the official said. “Current reforms in Burma should focus on dismantling the institutional structures and policies that enable continued discrimination and forced assimilation against ethnic and religious minorities.”
CSW’s Senior Advocate UK/UN Matthew Jones agreed. “We see considerable challenges in Burma’s ethnic regions including in the Burmese Army’s offensives against civilians in Kachin State, the conflict and suffering of the Rohingya in Rakhine State, and continuing violations of religious freedom and other human rights [of the Chin people] in Chin State,” Jones explained in remarks obtained by BosNewsLife.
“There is a need to encourage clear benchmarks and timelines for reform, and to maintain pressure on Burma to take steps to address human rights violations and engage in a meaningful nationwide peace process and political dialogue,” the official added.
The panel strongly condemned grave human rights violations in Rakhine and Kachin States, and called on the European Union (EU) to urge President Thein Sein’s government to allow immediate unrestricted humanitarian access to those areas.
Europarliamentarian László Tokés has also expressed concerns about Burma’s “state policy of segregation” of Buddhist and Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and the destruction of large Christian crosses in Chin State.
It came amid reports Friday, March 21, of unrelated deadly sectarian clashes that killed at least 10 people, injured 20 others and left scores of homes destroyed.
The riots in the town of Meikhtila, 540 kilometers (335 miles) north of Burma’s capital Naypyidaw, broke out after an argument between a Buddhist couple and Muslim owners of a gold shop, witnesses said.
Relations between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma, also known as Myanmar, have simmered since last year’s sectarian violence in western Rakhine state killed 110 people and left 120,000 homeless, analysts say.
The United Nations fears such incidents could endanger democratic reforms introduced since military rule ended in 2011.
In separate meetings with government and other officials in Washington this week, a CHRO and CSW delegation also spoke about “the problem of ethno-religious based discrimination in Burma. Since 1999, the US has designated Burma a ;country of particular concern’ for what it views as the country’s poor record on freedom of religion or belief.
Next week a CHRO delegation was to meet with legislators, government officials, and staff at Canada’s newly-established Office of Religious Freedom, to discuss the tensions in Burma, the rights activists said.
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