By Robin Gomes
Myanmar’s military raided a Catholic parish house in the western state of Chin and arrested a priest suspected of supporting a civil resistance group. Father Michael Aung Ling and a boarder student were arrested around 8 am on June 16 from the compound of St. Michael’s Church in Kanpetlet town, the parish under the Diocese of Hakha, the state capital.
After finding rice bags stored in the parish house, soldiers suspected the priest of supplying food to the Chinland Defense Force (CDF). After questioning him for 11 hours and making him sign a commitment letter, the army released the priest.
The coup and ethnic strife
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 coup has re-ignited Myanmar’s old conflicts between the military and some of the armed ethnic organizations as well as independent civil resistance groups. The groups are using homemade rifles and arms.
The CDF is one of the several and armed ethnic organizations fighting the military. Following a CDF ambush that caused heavy casualties among the junta’s forces in Mindat town, some 48 kilometers from Kanpetlet, the military imposed martial law on May 13. The following day, around 30 soldiers raided Sacred Heart Church in MIndat and searched the parish house where three young priests were staying, church sources said.
Kanpetlet is among several townships including Mindat and Hakha where more than 18,000 displaced people are sheltering in 74 centers. The intense fighting has sent nearly 50,000 people fleeing into jungles.
Other priests arrested
Father Aung Ling’s arrest came three days after the weekend arrest of 6 priests in Mandalay Archdiocese. Fr. Dominic Jyo Du, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Mandalay told the Vatican’s Fides news agency that on the night between 12 and 13 June, soldiers raided the Church of the Assumption complex and the adjoining house of the clergy. They arrested the parish priest and other priests who were visiting him, carrying out a thorough search of the compound.
With the arrival of the army, many villagers fled to the forest in panic and returned home only the following day. Paid informants are used by the military to nab protesters and insurgency militias. Church sources in Chin state say the tip-off regarding Father Aung Ling proved to be wrong.
Last week, the army also arrested a priest from Banmaw Diocese in Kachin state while he was traveling from Banmaw to Myitkyina. He was released after four days after Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam intervened. The military also raided churches in Kachin state and at least five Catholic churches in Pathein Diocese in the Irrawaddy Delta in April.
Christians and ethnic conflicts
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.
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.
Churches under fire
Churches, convents and other places of worship have thrown open their doors to fleeing civilians, especially the elderly, children, women, the sick and disabled, regardless of religion and race. Some of these churches deemed safe by the displaced have been shelled by the military.
Three churches in Loikaw Diocese were struck by military shelling within two weeks, with a May 23 attack on Sacred Heart Church killing four people and wounding eight others despite white flags flying on top of the church. In Pekhon Diocese, around 10,000 people are taking refuge in five churches despite four parishes in Mobye township having been totally abandoned due to intense fighting. The Sacred Heart Cathedral and Marian Shrine in the diocese in southern Shan state also came under fire from military shelling last month.
A source in Pekhon Diocese in Shan state told Fides that the army 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 said the military in its offensive against protesters and insurgents have been following its "policy of the four cuts": cutting off all access to food, communications, transport and finances.
The Catholic bishops of Myanmar released a statement on June 11, appealing that places of worship be spared and people seeking refuge there be protected. They urged that international norms of sanctuary regarding neutral places during conflicts, such churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques, temples, schools and hospitals be observed.
Humanitarian corridors to conflict areas
Thousands of civilians who have sought the safety of jungles, instead, lack food and other basic needs and are starving, the bishops said. “We plead with all to kindly allow the humanitarian corridor to reach out to the starving masses wherever they are,” the bishops pleaded. (Source: UCA News, Fides)