Thursday, January 29, 2009

Chin 'living in slavery'

Human rights body highlights plight of persecuted Christian group

By Nirmal Ghosh

BANGKOK (ST): The Chin people, Christians living in remote and rugged north-western Myanmar, are subjected to forced labour, torture, killings and religious persecution by the country's military regime, a human rights group said yesterday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a report based on interviews with Chin refugees across the region, said thousands of Chin have had to flee their homeland, mostly across the border to India as well as to Malaysia and Thailand.

The population of the Chin state is reckoned to be around 500,000. But between 75,000 and 100,000 Chin currently live in the Indian state of Mizoram, without support from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). About 30,000 Chin live in Malaysia.

The refugees have fled lives of constant fear, hardship and harassment, and conditions that amount to little more than slavery.

HRW's report documents cases of Chin people being forced to work without pay for the Tatmadaw - the Myanmar army - in projects such as road-building, construction and porterage. They worked under harsh conditions and could not attend to their crops and families.

The report documents several individual cases of arbitrary abuse ranging from harassment for money, to torture and imprisonment. The Chin people's religious symbols are also often destroyed.

Ms Sara Colm, a senior researcher for HRW, told journalists yesterday that the exodus of minority groups from Myanmar showed no signs of stopping, and had to be recognised as a problem for the whole region. 'The Chin state is a template for how repression works in rural Burma,' she said.

Her comments came amid a storm over the Thai military's alleged abuse of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar's Rakhine state, which has put pressure on Thailand's Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to live up to his publicly stated commitments to human rights and justice.

Life for the Chin in their mountainous homeland, hard enough in normal circumstances, is made unbearable by the Tatmadaw which has 10 battalions stationed in the state. An assessment in 2007 by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar came to the conclusion that 70 per cent of the population of the Chin state live in poverty, and 40 per cent are without adequate food sources.

The junta has done nothing to alleviate famine conditions in the state, where the 50-year bamboo flowering cycle has recently fuelled a boom in the rat population - which has attacked crops after finishing off the bamboo.

The Chins' own armed group, the Chin National Army, no longer poses a significant threat to the military regime, but its cadres make matters worse by levying taxes on locals. Any contact, even accidental, between an ordinary local and a Chin National Army cadre is grounds for being beaten, tortured and imprisoned.

Conditions in Mizoram are also not friendly, even though Mizos and Chins are ethnically closely related. Chins have been harassed by the Young Mizo Association, an ultra-nationalist vigilante organisation which constantly threatens to evict them from Mizoram and has carried out its threats.

HRW called on India to do more for Chin refugees in Mizoram, including allowing UNHCR to set up an office there.

The group also called for more assistance in remote areas of Myanmar. 'There is a need to focus international attention on areas of Burma that are extremely remote and neglected,' said Ms Colm.

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