Hundreds of asylum-seekers from Myanmar have come to Japan to escape persecution since the 1980s, including those belonging to ethnic minorities like the Rohingya and Kachin, and dozens have so far been recognized here as refugees.
However, one ethnic group — the Chin — whose members have arrived in large numbers, only recently began contemplating refugee status.
According to Chin National Community-Japan, a group set up in 2001 to help fight for minority rights, there are about 150 Chin in Japan.
While many arrived in the 1990s, only about 20 have so far applied for refugee status. None so far has been recognized as refugees, but two have been given special residency permits.
According to the Justice Ministry, 497 Myanmarese have sought asylum in Japan since the 1980s and 61 have been recognized as refugees.
One of the Chin group’s members said he arrived in Japan in the early 1990s after fleeing his hometown in Chin State, western Myanmar, and narrowly escaping arrest for taking part in the democracy movement.
But for over 10 years, he did not apply for refugee status and continued to campaign for democracy in Myanmar from Japan. It was only in 2003 that he finally sought asylum. But many of his fellow Chin have yet to come forward.
Eri Ishikawa, of the Japan Association for Refugees, said the man’s case is not unusual because the Chins have traditionally been a closed community.
“Chins have their own language and do not have much access to information that other Myanmarese asylum-seekers have,” Ishikawa said. “As a result, many did not know Japan had a refugee recognition system. All they knew was that they could not go back to Myanmar.”
According to Andrew Ngun Cung Lian, 38, a legal consultant for Canada-based Chin Human Rights Organization who visited Japan in May to look into the situation, there are mainly two reasons why the Chins are at risk of persecution in Myanmar.
First is their political affiliation, Lian said. Many Chin are members or strong supporters of the Chin National Front, a democracy-advocacy group established in March 1988 to oppose Myanmar’s military junta.
“The Chin National Front has been outlawed by the military regime,” said Lian, who was recognized as a refugee in the U.S. after he himself served as active member of the group from 1988 to 1994.
The second reason is religious persecution, Lian said. While most Myanmarese are Buddhists, the majority of Chin are Christian.
“The Burmese military leaders have a hidden agenda which is known as ‘Amyo, Bata, Sasana’ in Burmese,” Lian said. “This means there should be one race — Burman; one language — Burmese; and one religion — Buddhism.”
For example, Lian said, military leaders usually deploy non-Christian officials to Chin State, where they would intentionally ask villagers to work on the Sabbath.
“If the villagers are reluctant to do this unpaid work on Sunday, the army will charge them for disobeying the orders of the government,” Lian said. “Then, torture, arbitrary arrest, detention and other human rights abuses will follow.”
These factors should be taken into account when determining whether to recognize a Chin as a refugee, said Masako Suzuki, one of the lawyers supporting Myanmarese asylum-seekers.
Suzuki said the religious, ethnic and political considerations must be taken as a whole to avoid rejecting valid refugees on the basis of a single criterion — something she accused Japan of doing.
“Japanese immigration officials and courts do not understand that the Chin are in danger of persecution for multiple reasons,” Suzuki said. “The Japanese government does not look at each person’s situation comprehensively. It focuses on each aspect separately and determines there is not enough reason for fear of persecution for each aspect — and therefore refugee status is not granted,” she said.
According to Lian, three colleagues who were collecting information on human rights violations by the Myanmarese army were brutally killed in front of civilians. He also said he talked with several Chin women who were raped by soldiers, and others who were arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured.
Considering the situation in Myanmar, Lian said he hopes Japanese immigration officials will give special consideration to Chin asylum-seekers — especially since the Chin are afraid to approach police, immigration or military authorities of any country because of the way the junta treated them.
“Japan is a democratic country, which has been trying to become a permanent Security Council member of the United Nations,” Lian said. Therefore, “it is essential for the Japanese government to respect, promote and safeguard . . . fundamental human rights of the people, including refugee applicants in Japan.”
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