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Page last updated at 08:50 GMT, Monday, 19 April 2010 09:50 UK

Burma's 'forgotten' Chin people suffer abuse

By Sam Bagnall
Executive producer, Tropic of Cancer

Cheery Zahau and Chin people
The Chin people are one of the most persecuted groups in Burma

With elections being held in Burma later this year the country's "forgotten people" are appealing to the rest of the world for help.

The Chin people, who number roughly 1.5m and live mainly in the hilly west of the country near the Indian border, are one of the most persecuted minority groups in Burma.

Yet their plight is little known in the rest of the world.

Filming for the series Tropic of Cancer, presenter Simon Reeve and a two-man BBC crew managed to visit the area.

Risking capture and arrest at the hands of the Burmese army, who have around 50 bases in Chin State, they trekked through the jungle to a remote village.

"It was an extraordinary journey," said Reeve. "The villagers I met gave me horrifying accounts of the abuses they suffer at the hands of Burmese troops."

These stories appear to confirm recent research by US organisation Human Rights Watch.

Cheery Zahau
If we don't speak up, if we don't tell the stories of the people under this repressive military regime, then no-one will know what's happening
Cheery Zahau, Human Rights activist

After interviewing Chin refugees in neighbouring India their report concluded that the Chin are subjected to forced labour, torture, rape, arbitrary arrest and extra-judicial killings as part of a Burmese government policy to suppress the Chin people and their ethnic identity.

The BBC team was taken into Burma by Chin human rights activist Cheery Zahau.

Despite being on a Burmese army wanted list, Ms Zahau was prepared to run the risk of working with the BBC, which, like other western media organisations, is banned from entering Burma.

"If we don't speak up, if we don't tell the stories of the people under this repressive military regime, then no-one will know what's happening, and if they don't know they will not do anything," she said.

Christian persecution

The Chin are mainly Christians, having converted to the faith when the British ruled the area before independence after World War II.

The Chin are unsafe in Burma and unprotected in India, but just because these abuses happen far from Delhi and Rangoon does not mean the Chin should remain 'forgotten people'
Human Rights Watch

The persecution of the Chin dates back to the military takeover of Burma in the 1960s.

According to the US State Department, Burmese troops and officials have tried to forcibly convert the Chin from Christianity to Buddhism.

They have also destroyed churches, and arrested and even killed Christian Chin clergy, who now often work undercover.

The Chin also suffer from acute food shortages.

The United Nation's World Food Programme believes that food consumption in Chin State is the lowest in Burma. In recent years food shortages have been further exacerbated by a plague of rats, which have devastated Chin crops.

There is little in the way of medical facilities in Chin State. The villagers said that they had not seen a doctor for 10 years.

The Christian NGO Free Burma Rangers is one of the few sources of medical aid.

They give training to local volunteers who take basic drugs and medical equipment to the remote villages. The danger of running into a Burmese army patrol is ever present.

Free Burma Ranger gives out medicines
Free Burma Rangers give medicines to the Chin in secret

"If they catch us they will kill us," one volunteer inside Burma said.

In the neighbouring Indian state of Mizoram, Chin refugees receive little help from the Indian authorities or aid agencies.

Instead they face discrimination and hostility, and are often forcibly repatriated to Burma.

"The Chin are unsafe in Burma and unprotected in India, but just because these abuses happen far from Delhi and Rangoon does not mean the Chin should remain 'forgotten people'," said Human Rights Watch in its report.

Burmese refugees from other persecuted ethnic groups who can flee from the south and east of the country into neighbouring Thailand receive international help and assistance.

Human Rights Watch has called for better treatment for the Chin and for Chin refugees who arrive in India.

Map

Burma's military rulers intend to hold an election later this year, but most opposition leaders are banned from taking part.

The most famous is Aun Sang Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the elections of 1990.

Burma's military leaders refused to accept the results and she has spent most of the last two decades in detention. The NLD says it will boycott these elections.

Amnesty International has warned that ethnic groups, like the Chin, face increased repression at the hands of the Burmese military.

The Burmese regime has previously denied repressing ethnic groups.

Tropic of Cancer is broadcast on BBC Two at 2000 BST on Sunday 18 April.



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