By Robin Gomes
Myanmar’s military on Monday fired artillery shells at a Catholic Church in eastern Myanmar, killing four civilians sheltering there.
Sacred Heart Church in Kayanthayar Parish near Loikaw, the capital city of Kayah state, a Catholic area was the target of the attack in the early hours of May 24.
All those killed or wounded were Catholics. According to a local resistance member, 8 others were wounded. The Irrawaddy News said the military immediately removed the dead bodies. The roof, ceiling and cross of the church were damaged.
More than 300 people from at least 60 families had taken refuge in the church compound due to fighting over the weekend between the military and an anti-coup resistance group known as the Karenni People’s Defense Force (PDF).
Father Soe Naing, a spokesperson for Loikaw Diocese, said all those sheltering in the church had fled by the time church officials checked the damaged building on May 24 morning. He said thousands of people have taken refuge at churches, priests’ centers and nuns’ convents because they thought they were safe.
“The Church is responding to humanitarian assistance, but it’s a challenge for us as the number of internally displaced persons is increasing as a result of more fighting,” Father Soe Naing told UCA News. Catholics took to social media to condemn the church attack.
Fighting is also raging in ethnic areas such as Karen, Kachin and Chin states, which have large Christian populations, as the military steps up its offensive against ethnic guerrillas and anti-coup resistance groups by deploying fighter jets and heavy artillery. Kachin is home to about 116,000 Catholics among a population of 1.7 million.
Around 10,000 people have been displaced in Kachin, while more than 42,000 have been displaced in Karen state, and thousands have fled Mindat town in Chin state due to hostilities that have escalated since May 12, according to the latest UN report. Many of the displaced have sought shelter in neighbouring countries.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the Feb. 1 military coup that ousted the elected government and detained its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Protests and a civil disobedience campaign of strikes against the coup have paralyzed parts of the economy.
The military regards the overwhelming victory of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party in the August 2020 elections as fraudulent. A slew of other charges have been brought against here. Suu Kyi, appeared in a special court in the capital, Naypyitaw, for the first time since her arrest. Her only previous court appearances have been by video link.
Fear of civil war
According to Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an NGO which documents and compiles casualties of Myanmar’s protests, 824 people have been confirmed killed by the security forces as of May 24.
Meanwhile Christine Schraner Burgener, the United Nations Special Envoy on Myanmar, warned on Monday that the southeast Asian nation risked a possible civil war. She told a virtual press conference that people, frustrated with the military and its huge scale violence, are starting to arm themselves against the junta and are shifting from defensive to offensive actions, using homemade weapons and training from some ethnic armed groups.
Christians are a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of the 54 million population. 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 been fighting these groups.
Democracy under siege
Myanmar, also known as Burma, has suffered long under the rule of an oppressive military junta from 1962 to 2011. During the nearly 5 decades, almost all dissent was suppressed with gross human rights abuse, drawing international condemnation and sanctions. A gradual liberalization began in 2010, leading to free elections in 2015 and the installation of a government led by Suu Kyi the following year. The Feb. 1 military coup has rolled back Myanmar’s progress on the road to democracy. (Source: UCA News)