Christians in Rakhine State Stuck Between COVID-19 and Armed Conflicts
By ICC’s Myanmar Correspondent
05/01/2020 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – “Will this civil war ever end? I cannot even look up to God because everything seems hopeless. I cannot think ahead for myself, let alone my children. Did God abandon us here in this place? Will we ever have a chance to live peacefully again in our lifetime?” This is a lament from a Christian housewife, whose husband was abducted by the Buddhist militia Arakan Army (AA) in Rakhine State, Myanmar.
She recently shared her fear with ICC after the AA soldiers left her village, ransacking rice and livestock. She sounded so hopeless and desperate, with a lot of questions about life swirling in her head. “If I am already suffering like this, I really cannot imagine what my parents are going through in Chin state’s Paletwa,” she said.
Paletwa is situated between Rakhine State and Chin State. It is geographically strategic for local armed groups to gain a foothold for both attack and hide-out from the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army). For years, this place has been suffering since the beginning of the armed conflicts between the Tatmadaw and the AA. It is also a place where much of the ethnic Chin Christian majority lives.
The Tatmadaw has traditionally backed all the dictators ruling Myanmar and is known for its aggressive measures. The AA, on the other hand, represents the Rakhine ethnic group that takes pride in its majority Buddhist ethnicity and wants to strike for an Arakanese statehood. Rakhine State and western Myanmar are both known for the ongoing Rohingya crisis, namely minority Muslims being persecuted in the area. Yet, while the world pays attention to their plight, even these Muslims have their own armed group called Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), as opposed to Christians in the area who are truly vulnerable and without any form of protection.
Christians became an easy target for these armed groups since the conflicts first started. Christians in Rakhine State and Paletwa have been abducted, both individually and in groups, sometimes asked for ransom. For those who were detained temporarily for questioning, they are not allowed to speak up about their torture and experience, as they were forced to sign an agreement with the armed groups in exchange for their release. In some unfortunate cases, many Christians never came home after such interrogation.
Both armed groups also covet Christians’ property and are capable of stealing them anytime they want. As transportation to these villages is often blocked, the Christian villagers have no choice but to buy things at racked up price. Whereas the armed groups would show mercy towards their own kin, namely the Rakhine or other ethnic groups who are mostly Buddhist, they do not easily spare Chin Christians. Last year, these things happened on a daily basis for the believers. But in 2020, the fights intensified further. The sound of gunshots and mortar, and the sight of wounded or dead, became their daily routine in many parts of the area.
The majority of IDPs (internally displaced persons) live in Rakhine State. But for Chin and Myo ethnic groups, 90% of which are Christians, they have no safe place to dwell in Rakhine. Therefore, hundreds of them have to flee upward, towards the middle part of Myanmar, or down to Yangon where they can find shelter at some churches. Yet, since Yangon shut down the commute between the other parts of Myanmar, thousands of the most vulnerable people groups are trapped in Rakhine State.
While the whole world is caught up with COVID-19 headlines, Myanmar has two major headlines that we have to deal with: COVID-19 and the never-ceasing Rakhine Civil war updates, which make people all the more miserable during lockdown. Although the United Nations has called for a ceasefire during COVID-19 pandemic, echoed by both the U.S. embassy and British embassy in Myanmar, all these calls, however, remain unanswered in Rakhine State and some parts of Chin State. Christians in both states continue to live in fear and without much outside help amid the war and the pandemic.