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Christians under threat from Burmese govt, NGO reports: The Church of England Newspaper, September 16, 2012 p 5 September 20, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Myanmar, Buddhism, Church of England Newspaper, Persecution.
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Christians in Chin State worshiping in a makeshift church beside the ruins of their old church, destroyed by the military. Photo: CHRO

The Chin people of western Burma are denied religious freedom and are being coerced into abandoning their Christian faith and forced to convert to Buddhism by the state, according to a new report by the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).

The 160-page report, entitled “‘Threats to Our Existence’: Persecution of Ethnic Chin Christians in Burma” released on 5 September 2012 documents the military junta’s abuse of religious freedoms including forced labour, torture, church demolitions, banning of Christian worship services and forced conversions to Buddhism.

The 2012 US State Department’s International Commission on Religious Freedom categorized Myanmar as a country of “particular concern”, but a reform government led by President Thein Sein which came to power in March 2011 has ended press censorship, ended the ban on opposition parties, and released many political prisoners.

However, “Threats to Our Existence” reports the abuses of religious rights for the Chin have not ended.  The government’s “claims that religious freedom is protected by law but in reality Buddhism is treated as the de-facto state religion,” said CHRO Program Director Salai Ling.

“The discriminatory state institutions and ministries of previous military regimes continue to operate in the same way today. Few reforms have reached Chin State.”

Chin students are also frequently targeted for enrollment in schools run by Myanmar’s military which convert them to Buddhism, she said, adding that Christian students are beaten for failing to recite Buddhist scriptures.  CHRO Advocacy Director Rachel Fleming stated, “These schools are designed to facilitate a forced assimilation policy under the guise of development. The schools appear to offer a way out of poverty but there is a high price to pay for Chin students.”

“They are given a stark choice between abandoning their identity and converting to Buddhism, or joining the military to comply with the authorities’ vision of a ‘patriotic citizen’,” she said.

Chin state, which borders India, is home to around 500,000 people – the majority  of whom are Baptist or Anglican Christians.  Amnesty International reports that tens of thousands of Chin have fled to India and still face persecution from the state in Burma.

“The government needs to recognize that a multi-ethnic Burma needs to be a multi-religious Burma,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch. “This is a challenge the government has to face.”

First printed in The Church of England Newspaper.

Is it Race or Religion at Issue in Burma: Get Religion, September 5, 2012 September 6, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Islam, Persecution, Press criticism.
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What is driving the violence in Burma? Race or religion? And can the two be distinguished from one another. Reports from the South East Asian nation have framed the conflict in terms of sectarian violence — but is religion really the issue here?

The English-language service of France 24 reported that Buddhist monks had staged a mass political rally in the streets of Burma’s second largest city Mandalay. But unlike the 2007 anti-government protests that sparked the unsuccessful “Saffron Revolution”, France 24 reported this week’s rally was in support of the government and against Muslims.

Drawn from an AFP wire service report, France 24‘s headline read: “Buddhist monks stage anti-Rohingya rally”. The subtitle firmly anchored the story to the theme of sectarian Buddhist-Muslim clashes.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks marched in the Burmese city of Mandalay on Sunday to back President Thein Sein’s proposal to deport members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group. Fighting between the two sides has left almost 90 people dead since June.

The article stated:

“Protect Mother Myanmar by supporting the President,” read one banner, while others criticised United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has faced accusations that he is biased in favour of the Rohingya, following deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.

This article is the best I have seen so far on the disturbances. Written from Burma, it offered comments from a leader of the monks as well as concerns from international rights groups. But the title and subtitles given by France 24 do not quite match the story written by AFP.

The leader of the protest march did not use religion as a reason for his march, but race.

Wirathu, the 45-year-old monk who led the march, claimed that as many as 5,000 monks had joined the procession, with another several thousand people taking to the streets to watch.

He told AFP the protest was to “let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s ethnic groups at all”.

The monk, who goes by one name, said the aim was also to condemn “terrorism of Rohingya Bengalis who cruelly killed ethnic Rakhines”.

Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants and the violence has stoked a wave of anger across the Buddhist-majority country.

The video accompanying the France 24 story along with the text of the article quoted the leader of the monks as stressing a clash of peoples who happen to be of different faiths, than a clash of faiths. In the video Wirathu tells the camera that all Burmese “religions, sects and political parties” are united against the Rohingya.

A second AFP story from Burma suggested that race and religion may not be divisible. In an article entitled “Myanmar Christians forced to convert: rights group” a spokesman for the Chin, a predominantly Christian minority group in Burma, stated:

Rachel Fleming, another member of the [Chin] group, said Christianity does not fit with the national view that “to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist”.

Where then should the emphasis be in the phrase “Rohingya Muslim minority group”? On the ethnic — Rohingya — or religious — Muslim — descriptors for this minority group? It may well be argued that this is a meaningless distinction, that the reasons for the Rohinga’s suffering are of secondary consequence to the fact of their suffering. I have some sympathy for this argument, but it is a journalist’s duty to split these hairs and dig into a story. The bottom  line is that what AFP reported is not so straight forward as the France 24 title suggested.

To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, Burma is a far away country that we know little about — and hence care little about. Why would balancing race versus religion matter? One consequence of the Rohingya conflict is that it has become a political football in the Islamic world, with some extremist groups calling for jihad against Buddhists.

The anti-Buddhist rhetoric became so bad the Central Tibetan Administration — the Dhali Lama’s government in exile — issued a press statement denouncing the use of misleading photos to whip up anti-Buddhist sentiment in the Muslim world.

The Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala is deeply disturbed and concerned over the circulation of a misleading photograph in some section of the media showing Tibetan monks in their reports on the recent violence in Myanmar involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

A photograph of Tibetan monks standing in front of a pile of dead bodies appeared in  many websites in the Muslim countries, especially Pakistan. This photo of Tibetan monks was actually taken during their relief work in Kyegudo (Yushul), eastern Tibet, after a devastating earthquake hit the region on 14 April 2010. The Tibetan monks extended remarkable service in the rescue and relief operations at the time.

The relevant department of the Central Tibetan Administration wrote a letter to a website in Pakistan (ColumPk.com, Urdu Current Affairs Portal) on 30 July to remove the photo from its website, which it did so the next day. But the photo is still in circulation, as some Muslims carrying the photo during their recent protest in Mumbai on 11 August 2012, appeared in Zee News, a leading news channel in India.

We strongly appeal to the media across the world not to use this photo, which is being circulated by miscreants to provoke conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Pakistani pro-democracy bloggers have chronicled the use of the fake atrocity photo by Islamist extremist groups to inflame public sentiment, while retaliatory attacks on Buddhist temples in Indonesia by Muslim extremist groups in the wake of the Burmese conflict have been reported. Would these attacks have taken place if the Muslim angle were downplayed and the ethnic angle stressed? Does it make any difference? Should the press dig deeper into this story and find out what is really going on in Burma?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should this story be played out? Should reporters worry about the consequences of their stories if fanatics seize upon them for their own ends?

First printed in GetReligion.

Where have all the foreign correspondents gone?: Get Religion August 22, 2012 August 22, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Myanmar, Free Speech, Get Religion, Politics.
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“Truth is true only within a certain period of time,” observed a spokesman for the Burma’s military junta in the aftermath of that country’s 1988 pro-democracy uprising, reported Emma Larkin in her 2004 political travelogue-cum-biography “Finding George Orwell in Burma”. “What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.”

My mind turned to Burma and these musings on the nature of truth after reading Thomas Fuller’s solid story in the New York Times on the end of press censorship in Burma. Reading this piece also brought home the importance of having a correspondent in place that knows the territory, the players, the culture – a reporter who not only is in place, but who “gets it”. Compare the coverage in the New York Times with its story datelined Bangkok with that of the Los Angeles Times article written from California and you can see what I mean.

The LA Times opened its article with:

Journalists in Myanmar will no longer have to send their articles to state censors before publication, a landmark step announced Monday toward lifting restrictions on the press.

But reporters in the changing country still fear being punished for what they write. Free speech activists say other rules that clamp down on government criticism or touchy topics are still in place, inhibiting journalists from writing freely.

It followed with analysis, drawing quotes from scholars and Burmese activists outside of the country. On its face a nice, but thin story.

Compare it to the New York Times piece which opened with:

BANGKOK — The government of Myanmar said on Monday that it would no longer censor private publications, a move that journalists described as a major step toward media freedom in a country where military governments have tried for decades to control the flow of information.

The announcement was made to editors on Monday and posted on a government Web site. “All publications in Myanmar are exempt from the scrutiny of Press Scrutiny and Registration Department,” the government said in a terse statement.

It then moves to an analysis of the event, quoting Burmese journalists in Burma before moving to the close with context and further detail.

Like the democratization process itself in Myanmar, the government has scaled back censorship gradually. In June 2011, articles dealing with entertainment, health, children and sports were taken off the list of subjects requiring prior censorship. In December, economics, crime and legal affairs were removed. Education topics were taken off the list in March. The only two topics remaining on the list — religion and politics — were freed from censorship on Monday.

Like the New York Times, the Telegraph’s South Asia editor took an upbeat tone, but what the Times put in its last sentence the Telegraph put in its first:

Until yesterday all political and religious news had to be submitted to the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department for prior approval, but the requirement was dropped in what was hailed as another significant step in Burma’s fast-moving democratic reform process.

In the past twelve months, since democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi met former military leader President Thein Sein, the government has relaxed censorship and controls on trade unions, freed hundreds of political prisoners, and held a series of by-elections which were almost all won by the Nobel Laureate’s National League for Democracy and hailed as ‘free and fair.

Given that there has been a gradual relaxation of press restrictions over the past year, it makes sense that politics would be one of the last taboos. But why would religion reporting be banned?

The LA Times article does not mention the topic of religion at all, while the New York Times does not explain why religion reporting and not economics, for example, was banned. Why would a report on Burma’s parlous economic state be less of a threat to the regime than a report on a religious topic?

My assumption is that as Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of the pro-Democracy movement news about religion would be controlled by the state – but I have no knowledge on this point, and none of the articles address this. Nor is this likely to be something that falls within the catch-all of conventional wisdom about Burma – for until recently foreign reporters were banned from the country and its citizens were threatened with jail if they spoke with foreign reporters.

Why was religion so dangerous to the military junta? I can guess, but after reading these articles I do not know.

The New York Times however did a good job in capturing the excitement resident Burmese journalists felt. A joke current in Myanmar during the year Emma Larkin researched her book about George Orwell, who served as a colonial policeman in Burma during the 1920’s, was that “Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of ‘Burmese Days,’ ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.”

Larkin saw some truth in this joke noting that Orwell’s 1934 novel “Burmese Days” savaged British colonial rule; “Animal Farm” (1946) prophesied Burma’s “miserable experiment with socialism,” which transformed the country from one of the richest in Asia at the time of the left-wing military coup in 1962 to the one of the poorest today; while “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (1949) foresaw the transformation of the country into a society dominated by informers, doublespeak, political repression, torture and censorship.

In “Nineteen Eighty-Four” the protagonist Winston Smith works as a clerk in the Records Department of the Ministry of Truth, redacting history to conform to the party line of the present. Just as Winston Smith would “vaporize” dissidents from memory, until last year it was a crime in Burma to write the name of someone held to be an unperson, like pro-Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The tone of the New York Times piece better states, to my mind, the freedom felt by the Burmese, as does the Telegraph story. While skill in the craft of journalism plays its part, I also credit the high quality of these stories to the presence of Western reporters in the region.

This is now to often the exception rather than the rule. In an article entitled “How to Read Today’s Unbelievably Bad News” published by the Gatestone Institute, the Istanbul-based American journalist Claire Berlinski argues:

In-depth international news coverage in most of America’s mainstream news organs has nearly vanished. What is published is not nearly sufficient to permit the reader to grasp what is really happening overseas or to form a wise opinion about it. The phenomenon is non-partisan; it is as true for Fox News as it is for CNN.

Do look at this great piece by Ms. Berlinski — whose work I long have admired. It speaks to the reasons and consequences of the collapse of overseas reporting. Focusing on overseas religion reporting for GetReligion, I feel at times that I am working under a double disadvantage. The quantity and quality of international news coverage in U.S. and British newspapers has declined — and on top of that the few remaining foreign correspondents sometimes do not “get religion”.

First published in GetReligion.