The military coup in Myanmar is troubling news for religious minorities, including the country’s 4.4 million Christians.
As Aung San Suu Kyi and many of her officials are detained by the military amid international condemnation, local activists fear that the coup will renew the confidence of Buddhist nationalists and the atrocities perpetrated against religious minorities.
Labelling the November 2020 elections, which saw Suu Kyi’s party win 83% of the vote, a fraud General Min Aung Hlaing, the army’s Commander in Chief, declared a one-year state of emergency. A statement released by his office declared that “free and fair multiparty general elections” will follow.
However, it is unclear whether Hlaing will keep his word. “The aim of the army has always been to run the country,” Nehginpao Kipgen, executive director at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies in India told France24.
Since the military took power, Myanmar’s communication lines have been restricted or severed.
“As the military seizes power and detains the country’s leaders, all communication lines like phone and internet have been cut off,” said a local partner of Christian persecution watchdog Open Doors. “We are cut off from our contacts inside the country, but we are doing our best to monitor the situation.”
The military takeover is terrible news for Burmese Christians, say Open Doors.
“In the last half-century the military junta has been systematically persecuting Christians. What happens now, remains to be seen,” says Jan Vermeer, Open Doors’ Communications Director for Asia.
Brother Lwin, not his real name, a local partner of Open Doors, is concerned that renewed military rule could mean “reinforced power for the dominant religion”.
“The military government of the past has always been protective of their Buddhist culture and tradition,” he said. Though he is unsure what will happen, Lwin believes the coup will have “serious implications” for the church and expects further restrictions to be imposed on it.
The religious nationalism of the military and the Buddhist monks who support them have driven millions of Rohingyas and Christians to flee to Bangladesh. Many are still in Cox’s Bazar, currently the largest refugee settlement in the world.
The impact on the economy is a particular concern for brother Lwin. He noted that the closure of banks – due to a lack of phone reception – will make financial support to the church from overseas “impossible”.
“The military also has the track record of devaluing the local currency. It may happen again. This will set the country’s economy to plummet,” he said.
According to Open Doors, the Covid-19 pandemic has intensified the challenges facing Christians, who are frequently overlooked in the distribution of government aid because of their faith.
“We’re at a crucial moment for the future of Myanmar,” says Julia Bicknell, analyst of Open Doors’ World Watch List. “And it is the country’s religious and ethnic minorities, including the Christians that have most to fear from the current crisis. The plight of the Rohingya people has highlighted the persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslim population. Christians feel forgotten, we need to make sure that they aren’t.”