Burma, Vietnam and Christianity

Authoritarian Burma and Vietnam have plenty in common. An apparent mistrust of Christianity is one.

Burma and Vietnam – at least on the surface – have much in common. Both are authoritarian states which must endure an overbearing military that insists on having its say in civilian government.

In bowing to the army, authorities in Naypyidaw and Hanoi have also been equally dismissive of the historical role the Buddhist clergy has played in legitimizing the rule of their country’s leaders in the eyes of the broader population.

It’s an issue that goes to the heart of acceptance, and was played out on the streets of Rangoon in 2007 when the Burmese military paid no heed to centuries of religious respect and brutally cracked down on peacefully protesting monks.

This sense off acceptance will be at the fore again on Sunday when Burmese President Thein Sein will be tested in 48 by-elections pitting his Union Solidarity Development Party against pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy.

To be sure, both nations are mindful, of the popularity Buddhism enjoys among the general public, and when necessary are at least prepared to offer some lip service to their country’s religious heritage in return for a blessing or two.

The same can’t be said for Christianity, a religious minority that seems to be at constant odds with senior ranks from either side of Indochina. And this has been on show over recent days.

In Burma’s western Chin state, soldiers have reportedly ransacked a Baptist church, burned bibles and disrupted an evangelical conference.Property was destroyed amid military claims the church was being usedby the rebel Kachin Independence Army.

One report said soldiers had taken money from donation boxes.

Meanwhile, the Vietnamese government has reportedly refused entry to a delegation from the Vatican who are conducting an investigation into the cause for beatifying Cardinal Francis Xavier Nguyen Van Thuan who was arrested in 1975 when he was coadjutor archbishop of Saigon.

He spent 13 years in prison, went into exile in 1989 and died in 2002.

In the same week a court in central Vietnam has sentenced Pastor Nguyen Cong Chinh to 11 years behind bars after he was convicted in aone-day trial of undermining government policy on unity.

Nguyen, a member of the outlawed Mennonite Church, was also convicted of slander and collaborating with reactionary groups. Mennonite history is based on a commitment to non-violence.

Burma is quite rightly winning applause for its political and economic reforms designed to “open-up” the country in a not too dissimilar manner to Vietnam’s experience of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Since then, however, Vietnam’s engagement with the rest of the world has evolved at best in fits and starts. Its treatment of Christian and other ethnic and religious groups and political dissidents has provided ample evidence of Hanoi’s limited approach to reform.

As such, “opening-up” may be at risk of becoming an over-hyped buzzword in Burma.

Reforms and by-elections no doubt spell an improved lot for ordinary Burmese, but the lessons learned in Vietnam offer a more sobering experience and Christians – who don’t enjoy the same barest of religious freedoms as Buddhists – are no doubt aware of this.