Kevin ClarkeMay 28, 2021
 (CNS photo/courtesy Myitkyina News Journal)j

UPDATE: Sources in Myanmar report that St. Joseph's church in Demoso came under attack on May 26 from Myanmar army forces. Hundreds sheltering there, “mostly women and children who were too scared to remain at their homes amidst the Burmese military’s arbitrary shelling and shootings,” were forced to flee. The sources add that the parish buildings and convent in Demoso were looted by Myanmar soldiers.

Displaced people who had sheltered at a nearby Baptist church were also ordered to leave by the military. The community is in the Loikaw district of Kayah State where fighting between ethnic resistance forces and Myanmar security forces has been increasing. Sources also report that a volunteer who had been preparing food for displaced people was killed by soldiers at the Catholic seminary in Loikaw. They add that the soldiers remained to eat the food meant for the displaced people who had sought refuge at the seminary.

Jesuit Refugee Service joined a number of other Catholic and other faith groups on June 3 in a statement condemning the increasing violence by Myanmar military. “Since the events of 1 February 2021, we have viewed with deepening concern the mounting humanitarian needs and spiraling disregard for human rights that, as always, impact most heavily our most vulnerable sisters and brothers,” JRS and the other signatories wrote. They appealed to the international community to respond “to the continuing humanitarian tragedy” in Myanmar.

It is a photo that became an indelible image in the early days of the protests against the military junta that seized power in Myanmar in February: Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng kneeling in prayer, placing herself between Myanmar security forces and protesters outside her medical clinic in Myitkyina, the capital city of Myanmar’s Kachin State. Her community superior has reminded her that she has now made this perilous gesture to keep the peace on two occasions. She suggested that Sister Nu Tawng not put herself at risk like that a third time.

But this is one instruction from her superior that she is prepared to ignore, she says, in an interview from Kachin State on May 28. “I will do it at the cost of my life,” Sister Nu Tawng, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier, says, “because I have to do it. I have to stand by the truth and I don’t want to see the injustice and killing right in front of me.

“I will not let that happen,” she says. “I will do whatever I can.”

Myanmar military officials seized control of the national government on Feb. 1, alleging electoral fraud and overturning the results of a national election that had returned National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to power. The former “state counsellor” and many other N.L.D. leaders have been detained since the coup, which has provoked months of resistance in major cities in Myanmar.

Sister Nu Tawng: “I will do it at the cost of my life. I have to stand by the truth. I don’t want to see the injustice and killing right in front of me.”

Sister Nu Tawng has witnessed a great deal of violence since anti-junta demonstrations began. Three protesters were shot down in front of her small clinic; two of them died.

Now she watches in despair as state violence increases against the people of Myanmar. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners reported on May 27 that 831 protestors have been killed since February. Large-scale protests have diminished because of the brutal response of the government, but people are finding small ways to resist every day, she says. Even these gestures are not without great personal risk.

Civil servants who have refused to return to work for the junta are being arrested and their families thrown out of their homes, Sister Nu Tawng says. Young people are fleeing to the nation’s peripheries to take military instruction from the ethnic-minority armies that remain active after more than six decades in Shan, Chin, Kayin and other states.

She fears that more violence, even a broad civil war, is on the horizon for Myanmar unless the international community responds more aggressively now to dislodge the junta. Myanmar’s young people have been especially brave and have shown great solidarity across religions and ethnicities, she said. She does not believe they will back down.

That movement of former protesters who have abandoned the peaceful struggle into ethnic states may account for a sudden military escalation against ethnic militias after years of relative calm. The violence has provoked the worst dislocation of people in Myanmar in years. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 46,000 people across the country have been driven from their homes inside Myanmar because of conflict in April and May, joining about 40,000 others already displaced by the crisis. Thousands of others have become refugees.

Sister Ann Rosa Nu Tawng fears that more violence, even a broad civil war, is on the horizon for Myanmar unless the international community responds more aggressively now to dislodge the junta.

Local sources in the Thailand-Myanmar border region report harrowing conditions among refugees fleeing from Myanmar. Many refugees, numbering about 3,000 so far, have been driven back across the border by Thai officials, these sources said. They report that refugees are suffering from exhaustion and post-traumatic stress after also enduring multiple attacks by the Myanmar armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw.

The local sources, who asked to remain anonymous because of security and operational concerns, report that the displaced villagers are primarily from Myanmar border states with China and Thailand that are home to ethnic-based resistance movements. Many displaced villagers still inside Myanmar take refuge in the forests at night, where they construct makeshift shelters, and may venture to their homes in daylight hours, but find government drones and patrols a constant menace.

The sources report that the displaced people are often without food and clean water. Many are suffering from acute diarrhea from drinking river water, and many cases of malaria are emerging as refugees and internally displaced people are forced to sleep outdoors without protective netting.

These sources say that despite Thai government claims to the contrary, local officials backed by Thai soldiers have been forcing refugees back into Myanmar, where they are again vulnerable to attacks. They say Thai officials are also blocking humanitarian assistance and preventing journalists from entering the border region.

Many displaced villagers still inside Myanmar take refuge in the forests at night and may venture to their homes in daylight hours, but find government drones and patrols a constant menace.

The villagers have been escaping mortar attacks, small-arms fire and air strikes from Myanmar military forces, but they are also fleeing the escalating conflict between the Myanmar army and ethnic nationalist groups like the Karen National Liberation Army. Its leaders had expressed support for public resistance to the junta.

The sources report that the recent harassment and attacks on members of ethnic minorities escalated sharply after a clash on May 21 between the Tatmadaw and ethnic guerrilla fighters in Kayah State. An attack on a church where displaced villagers sought sanctuary on May 23 was condemned by Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who implored Myanmar military and resistance forces to cease fighting, but these sources said other religious sites have similarly been targeted as villagers flee to them for safety. They explained that villagers have been sheltering in Catholic churches, Buddhist temples and “religious sites in general,” presuming they would be safe from attack.

The sources urge that international pressure be brought to bear on Myanmar’s leaders so that sanctuary at religious sites is respected. “Churches should be the place that can protect people,” one says. She could not say if the attacks on religious sites represented a deliberate policy of the Myanmar army because “shooting attacks and detained people [are happening] everywhere across the country.”

“It might be just random incidents that happened to churches and temples,” she says, “but because this is the last resort of people, they are praying for their lives, so this should be a place where they feel safe.”

Her colleague confirms that across Myanmar “there’s random shooting on the residents in the evening” and harassment of “anyone who is participating in the protests.” He warns, “If this continues they will be forced to cross the border because there is no safety inside of Myanmar.”

Sister Nu Tawng describes a nation living in fear, where arrest may come at any time or for any reason, where people are picked up by security forces in the morning and dropped off as corpses in the evening.

That promises a different clash at the border, he fears, where he expects that local officials will not accept refugees from Myanmar. This source reports that his group had been able to assist some refugees but could only do so at great personal risk themselves and on a small, quiet scale that was insufficient to the crisis at hand.

Asked if the sudden attacks on ethnic minorities seemed to suggest a panic among the military leadership that the political crisis in Myanmar might be escalating beyond their control, the source says, “I don’t think they are panicking; they are just killing machines.”

“The whole attitude of this dictatorship is just to suppress everything,” he adds, noting that more than 20 children have been killed so far as demonstrations against the coup continue.

There has been insufficient response from the international community, he complained, especially from neighboring states like Thailand and other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “They feel nobody can stop them; they have the backing of other bigger countries, so they can just kill; they can do anything,” he says. “No one has shown any significant resistance to what they are doing other than the people.”

Immediate steps for the international community to respond to the border crisis should include demanding the immediate halt to attacks on non-combatants and the targeting of religious sites and the protection of those displaced inside Myanmar and refugees in Thailand, he says. He urges also that the villagers and church groups that have been attempting to provide an impromptu humanitarian response during the crisis, “even as they are displaced themselves,” should be protected from military harassment.

After witnessing Myanmar experience so much economic and political progress in recent years, Sister Nu Tawng is heartbroken about its condition today. All of that progress is being lost in weeks, she says.

Right now, he complains, “they are targeting everyone who is not military or not police.”

After witnessing Myanmar experience so much economic and political progress in recent years, Sister Nu Tawng is heartbroken about its condition today. All of that progress is being lost in weeks, she says.

She describes a nation living in fear of its own government and its own military, where arrest may come at any time or for any reason, where people are picked up by security forces in the morning and dropped off as corpses in the evening—or worse, held by police until families can ransom the bodies of their loved ones.

Women detained by police have been sexually assaulted. Journalists are being arrested, and doctors are being prevented from doing their life-saving work. Many try to help wounded protesters in secret.

The military acts with complete impunity and in apparent indifference to the misery of the people, Sister Nu Tawng says. She prays that God will change the hearts of the junta leaders and inspire the international community to take stronger action against them.

“These are the people who are supposed to be our guardians,” she says. “The people who should be protecting their own people are the ones who are repressing them, arresting them, shooting and killing them.”

Her composure has not broken for more than an hour, but as the interview concludes, Sister Nu Tawng falters. “Please,” she says finally, weeping, “do what you can for us; pray for the people of Myanmar; help Myanmar; save Myanmar.”

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