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Explainer: What you should know about the coup in Myanmar

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March 5, 2021

About three dozen people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in Myanmar on Wednesday when the country’s police and military forces opened fire on peaceful anti-coup protesters. According to The Economist, video footage showed officers firing slingshots at protesters and beating an ambulance crew. The killings mark the worst day of violence since the military launched a coup on February 1. 

The military took control of the country and declared a year-long state of emergency following a general election which Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won by a landslide. The military, which backed the opposition, claimed election fraud, though the election commission found no evidence to support that accusation. Suu Kyi is currently under house arrest and faces criminal charges for possessing illegal walkie-talkies, violating COVID-19 restrictions during last year’s election campaign, and publishing information that may “cause fear or alarm”.

Min Aung Hlaing, the commander in chief of the military, has taken control of the government. Hlaing has been condemned by the international community for his alleged role in the military’s attacks on ethnic minorities. A 2018 report by the United Nations established clear “patterns of violations” of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed by the Myanmar military.

“During their operations the [Myanmar military] has systematically targeted civilians, including women and children, committed sexual violence, voiced and promoted exclusionary and discriminatory rhetoric against minorities, and established a climate of impunity for its soldiers,” said Marzuki Darusman, a member of the UN’s Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar.

The report documents acts of genocide perpetrated against the Rohingya since August 25, 2017. The actions of the Myanmar military—which they called a “clearance operation”—included the killing thousands of Rohingya civilians, as well as forced disappearances, mass gang rape, and the burning of hundreds of villages.

“I have never been confronted by crimes as horrendous and on such a scale as these,” added Darusman.

Although these atrocities occurred while Suu Kyi was leader, there is concern that the military will be even more emboldened to commit atrocities after deposing the democratically elected leader. 

Where is Myanmar?

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is a country in Southeast Asia that is bordered by India and Bangladesh to its west, Thailand and Laos to its east, and China to its north and northeast.

According to the 2014 census, 87.9 per cent of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, 6.2 percent Christian, and 4.3 percent are Muslim. The country’s constitution, adopted in 2008, recognizes the “special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union” but also “recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

According to the UN, Myanmar has seen an increase in Buddhist nationalism since 2011, with virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence between Buddhists and Muslims.

What exactly is a “coup”?

Coup (pronounced “coo”) is short for coup d’etat, a French word meaning “blow of state.” Coups d’etat are defined as “overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means . . . there is no minimal death threshold for defining a coup. A coup attempt is defined as successful if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.”

How is the coup affecting Christians in the country?

The military of Myanmar has a long history of targeting religious minorities, most notably the country’s Rohingya Muslims, but also Christians.

As Christianity Today reports, evangelical pastors in Myanmar have taken to the streets in protest, believing that “God is on the people’s side and praying desperately for him to bring justice.” Ministries are scrambling to adapt, says Kate Shellnut, so they can keep encouraging one another and ensure evangelism efforts don’t let up during another dark chapter in their country’s history.

“On the ground, our brothers and sisters [believers] will continue their movement of peaceful civil disobedience, the drumming of pots and pans, peaceful mass marching demonstrations, and the chants of condemnation to the military,” says said Michael Koko Maung, leader of Nehemiah Ministries, a national network of church planters. “Abroad, we will let the world know that we are fighting back.”

International Christian Concern (ICC) says the military and police raided the Kachin Baptist Church several times and captured 14 Christians, including four ministers, six church youth, three seminary students, and a church secretary. No one knows where these detainees are currently being held. ICC points out that the Christian-majority Kachin people have had a long history of armed conflicts with the military, known as the Tatmadaw. In an effort to crack down KIA’s secession attempt and their Christian identity, says ICC, the Tatmadaw has “destroyed churches, abducted villagers, raped women, or killed innocent civilians.”