The Catholic Bishops of Myanmar have appealed for a “humanitarian corridor” for thousands of displaced people trapped and starving in conflict zones. They have also appealed for respect for places of worship and other neutral sites where many innocent civilians have sought shelter. “As our country goes through her challenging times, this appeal is made on humanitarian grounds,” said a message by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Myanmar (CBCM). “We are not politicians, we are faith leaders, accompanying our people in their journey towards human dignity,” the CBCM said in the message released at the end of its plenary assembly in Yangon, June 8-11.
Coup protests and ethnic conflicts
The impoverished south-east Asian nation has been plunged into chaos since the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the elected government and detained its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Protests and strikes against the coup have paralyzed parts of the economy.
The crisis has also re-ignited Myanmar’s old conflicts between the military and some of the armed ethnic organizations. Areas occupied by the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah ethnic groups, who have been facing oppression and persecution at the hands of the military for decades, are largely Christian. An estimated one-third of Myanmar’s territory – mostly the border regions – is currently controlled by 20-odd armed rebel outfits. The military has stepped up its offensive against ethnic guerrillas and anti-coup resistance groups by deploying fighter jets and heavy artillery.
Christians are a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of its 54 million population. Myanmar Catholics represent about 1.5 percent of the population.
Threat of starvation
The message signed by the 13 CBCM members has four appeals.
Firstly, they noted, “Thousands of our people, especially the old and the children are starving in the jungles.” “Starvation of innocent people is the most heart-wrenching experience. These are our citizens and they have basic right to food and safety.” Hence, “We plead with all to kindly allow the humanitarian corridor to reach out to the starving masses wherever they are.”
Places of worship under attack
Secondly, the bishops noted that in the recent conflict, thousands have sought safety in the churches. Four churches in Loikaw Diocese in Kayah state have come under military artillery fire and thousands sheltering there fled elsewhere or into the jungle. The bishops called for observing international norms in times of war regarding sanctuaries. Churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques and temples, including schools and hospitals, are recognized as neutral places of refuge during conflicts and should not be targeted. “We appeal that these places are not to be attacked and the people who seek refuge should be protected,” the bishops said.
The bishops also made an appeal to all the dioceses of the country to intensify their spiritual campaign. “Our destiny is in God’s hands, who must change the hearts of all, bringing peace to this nation. As a nation we have suffered a lot and this should end,” they said, inviting each diocese to a period of “intense prayer, seeking compassion in the hearts of all and peace to this nation”.
Striving for lasting peace
Lastly, the bishops of Myanmar urged all parties to work for lasting peace. They noted that the last 7 decades that their country has been in conflict, have caused only tears and crushed innocent people. However, the nation needs to “invest in peace because nobody has won a war in this country” the bishops wrote, “it is our duty to work towards peace. This country deserves to join the community of nations, putting its past to history and investing in peace. Human dignity is given by God and no amount of violence can negate people’s aspiration for human dignity,” the bishops stressed, adding history has proved that this can be achieved by peaceful means. “Peace is still possible. Peace is the way” they added.
Father Celso Ba Shwe, the apostolic administrator of Loikaw Diocese, said that as fighting escalates in Kayah and in the neighboring state of Shan, churches, convents and monasteries have opened their doors to fleeing civilians, regardless of religion and ethnicity, especially the elderly, children, women, the sick and the disabled. As of June 7, he said, 23 camps for internally displaced persons have been set up and about 45,000 displaced persons are under the care of the Catholic Church of Loikaw. But after the attacks on churches, they are scattered again. He appealed to both sides of the conflict in Kayah to refrain from targeting places of worship. With food, goods and gasoline prevented from reaching Kayah, Father Shwe warned of an “imminent famine”.
A source in Pekhon Diocese, in neighboring Shan state, told the Vatican’s Fides news agency that the military has destroyed tons of rice stored to feed the internally displaced people in the village of Loi Ying Taungche, near the city of Moebye. The source noted that army is following the “policy of the four cuts”: cutting off all access to food, communications, transport and finances, to squash every resistance and protest.
According to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 175.000 people have been displaced in Kachin, Karen, Chin, Kayah and Shan states since the Feb. 1 coup.
Mandalay, Burma, Apr 8, 2022
Approximately 40 Burmese soldiers forcibly took control of a Catholic cathedral in Mandalay prior to a Lenten prayer service and detained an archbishop and dozens of other worshippers. The soldiers entered Sacred Heart Cathedral and refused to allow worshipers to leave. Soldiers also occupied other buildings on the compound. Archbishop Marco Tin Win and employees of the Archdiocese of Mandalay were similarly herded into the building and forced to sit in the pews along with the worshipers.
“I was so afraid,” one elderly Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioner, who did not give her name for safety reasons, told CNA. “The military was always crazy but they never acted like this before. We ran home as soon as we were allowed out of the church.” “The soldiers kept demanding to know where the gold and money and weapons were hidden,” explained her nephew, who also asked for anonymity. “I told them there was none. Any money collected is for the relief of poor families.”
Upon hearing of the intrusion, Monsignor Dominic Jyo Du, vicar general of the archdiocese, confronted the soldiers and their officers inquiring as to their presence. The soldiers rushed him into the cathedral along with the archbishop.
Sacred Heart Cathedral is located in a working-class, largely Tamil Indian neighborhood that has not seen significant open resistance to the military coup that took power on Feb. 1, 2021, dissolving the Parliament and arresting those connected to the legitimate government. The neighborhood’s populace prefers instead to plan their demonstrations and attacks far from their homes. This has not stopped the military from routinely invading suspected leaders’ homes and harassing ethnic non-Burmans.
Tamils are either Catholics or Muslim and are held in suspicion by the military and militant Buddhists, including several high profile radical monks such as Ashin Wirathu, whose fiery sermons concentrate on racist diatribes against Muslims and Christians. On multiple occasions Wirathu openly has called for the extermination of the Muslim minority, known as the Rohingya. The latter, who have had to across the border to Bangladesh, have had open conflict with the central government for at least 10 years.
Since the coup, more than 12,000 people have been arrested and an estimated 1,600 killed in the conflict, including 50 children. According to media reports, the military junta has deliberately targeted churches, other institutions, and civilians. In March, military aircraft attacked a town in the east of the country, causing severe damage to a Catholic convent’s roof, ceiling, and windows.
The junta’s crackdown follows a pattern of more than a century of the military attacking Catholics and other religious and ethnic minorities throughout Burma, burning down churches, imprisoning those who are labeled as dissenters, and restricting the movements and activities of Catholics throughout the country in general.