Myanmar’s Army Increased Attacks Against Christians in Kayah State
By Gina Goh and Jay Church
This article is part of a series analyzing the unique challenges facing Myanmar’s Christian population after the coup on February 1, 2021. Click here for more background on the situation and here for a preview of the series.
06/12/2021 Myanmar (International Christian Concern) – There is no sign showing that the Burmese military (Tatmadaw) is willing to concede its quest for a permanent reign over Myanmar. On the contrary, since the February 1 coup, as the pro-democracy protestors fiercely push back against the Tatmadaw’s aggression, the latter has expanded its attacks from targeted cities to several states, especially those with Christian-majority with ethnic militias.
More than 50,000 civilians have been forced to leave their homes in Kayah and neighboring Shan State due to the intensified clashes between the Tatmadaw and pro-democracy groups since the coup. Many of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) are seeking shelter at monasteries, convents, and churches, yet safety is not guaranteed, as in the case of Kayah.
At least three churches in the Catholic stronghold have been targeted since late May, with six killed and many more injured. There are over 90,000 Kayah Catholics in the State with 355,000 inhabitants.
History & Background
Kayah State is home to the Karenni, also known as the Kayah or Kayah Li, a Sino-Tibetan ethnic group. Similar to other ethnic classifications in the country, ‘Karenni’ is a collective term constructed during the British colonial era that represents multiple ethnic groups.
Also referred to as the Red Karen (red is the highlighted color in traditional garment) or Kayah, the group is composed of diverse sub-tribal groups that speak similar Tibeto-Burman languages such as Kekhu, Bre, Kayah, Yangtalai, Geba, Zayein, and Paku. Due to the lack of accurate statistics, there is only an estimation of the population: 250,000 people.
It is believed that the Karenni people migrated from Mongolia and settled in Kayah State as early as 700 BC. The independence and sovereignty of the Karenni State, recognized by the British in an 1875 agreement, stood as a stark contrast to other states in Burma that were annexed as part of India in 1885.
After Myanmar gained independence in 1948, however, Kayah State was forcefully incorporated into the Union of Burma without the consent of the Karenni people. The formation of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) in the late 1950s and several ethnic armed groups led to the violent conflict in this part of Burma soon after. The Burmese military junta began persecuting the indigenous Karenni and subjected them to gross human rights violations. Nearly a third of the population in the state of Kayah were displaced, and 20,000 of them fled to nearby Thailand as a result.
Traditionally, Karenni people are Animist and Buddhist, but many have converted to Christianity (mostly Catholic). The Catholic presence in this region began in the late 1800s with the arrival of the first missionaries from the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME). Today, Christian churches have a significant influence over the majority of villagers in Kayah State, yet they continue to suffer persecution from the Tatmadaw.
A String of Attacks Against Churches and Civilians
Four people were killed and eight injured on May 23 when the Tatmadaw attacked a Catholic church in eastern Myanmar. The church compound was sheltering more than 300 people who were displaced due to intensified fighting between the military and an anti-coup resistance group called the People’s Defense Force (PDF). The military carried out the attack around 1 am at the Sacred Heart Church near Loikaw, the capital city of Kayah State.
In response, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s Roman Catholic leader, published an appeal on May 25. Though not naming the Burmese Army, he asked “related organizations” to stop the attacks on places of prayer and called the situation “a great humanitarian tragedy,” where the blood of unarmed people, who have taken refuge in churches to protect themselves and their families, is spilled.
On the evening of May 27, St. Joseph’s Church in Kayah State was attacked by the Tatmadaw. Artillery fire hit the church in the town of Demoso, breaking windows and putting holes in the church walls.
While no one was inside the church compound when the attack took place, two young Catholic men, Alfred Ludo and Patrick Bo Reh, both from the parish of St. Joseph, were killed by the soldiers when they went out to retrieve food for the displaced people in the Ngu Palot neighborhood.
On the same day, a member of the multi-ethnic humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers, All Lo Sein, was also killed in the clashes around Demoso. The 24-year-old was shot while trying to protect some civilians trapped under fire.
On May 29, a young man who volunteered at a Catholic seminary in Loikaw, capital of Myanmar’s Kayah State, was murdered when the Tatmadaw raided the building—
where refugees and displaced people were housed—and conducted a room-by-room search.
Despite the priests’ attempt to stop the military, they could not prevent the senseless act. Moreover, the motive for the killing was not known, since the man did not resist.
On June 6, the Tatmadaw unleashed artillery fire on Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in the Loikaw diocese, located near the town of Demoso in Kayah State. As reported to Fides by a priest of the diocese, Father Paul Tinreh, no injuries or victims were reported.
Agenzia Fides, a Catholic news portal, also reported on the additional attacks against the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, in the parish of Domyalay, a recently built and not yet inaugurated church and the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in the diocese of Phekhon.
Father Francis Soe Naing, a local priest, told Fides. “We have appealed to the military not to attack churches because many people, especially the most vulnerable, are taking refuge in them. But the appeal has fallen on deaf ears.”
The increased attacks on churches evidently show the hostilities the Tatmadaw has towards Christianity and its disregard for human lives. The international community and churches should not stand idle and watch more atrocities unfold before our eyes. The people of Myanmar need our help.