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Kevin ClarkeFebruary 22, 2024
The destroyed St. Matthew Church is pictured in Myanmar's eastern Kayah State in Daw Ngay Ku village on June 27, 2022. The church was reportedly blown up by landmines and torched by Myanmar’s military junta. (CNS photo/courtesy Amnesty International)The destroyed St. Matthew Church is pictured in Myanmar's eastern Kayah State in Daw Ngay Ku village on June 27, 2022. The church was reportedly blown up by landmines and torched by Myanmar’s military junta. (CNS photo/courtesy Amnesty International)

The Weekly Dispatch takes a deep dive into breaking events and issues of significance around our world and our nation today, providing the background readers need to make better sense of the headlines speeding past us each week. For more news and analysis from around the world, visit Dispatches.

In February 2021, Myanmar descended into a chaos the Southeast Asian nation still struggles to escape when its military leaders nullified election results and overthrew the civilian government of the Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, ending a 10-year democratic interlude.

In the weeks that followed, a military junta, dubbed the State Administration Council, began a roundup of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters and fellow officials from the National League for Democracy in government and civilian life. Soon, thousands—journalists, students, professionals—were imprisoned, and the streets of major cities were shut down by protesters demanding a democratic restoration.

“The Burmese feel they are a nation, a church and a community on the edge of awareness by the international community; on the edge of interest by the superpowers; and on the edge of an abyss.”

Many anti-regime protesters in urban centers like Yangon over time abandoned peaceful resistance and took refuge at the geographic margins of Myanmar. They allied with ethnic militia forces that have been engaged against the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, since the earliest days of independence in 1948, when the country was known as Burma. A broad resistance to the generals has been sustained now for three years.

With the world distracted by crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the Tatmadaw has been ramping up the violence. Air strikes on villages have increased and civilian casualties have been on the rise, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, and Myanmar Witness, a project headquartered in Britain.

In diocesan communiques, Bishop Celso Ba Shwe, who leads the Diocese of Loikaw in Kayah State, has condemned this indiscriminate use of force. “The Burmese junta has used heavy weapons, fighter jets, armored vehicles, ballistic missile systems and mobile defense systems,” he wrote in November. “As a result, people both urban and rural are fleeing their residences and [fleeing in] different directions.” Many escape into Myanmar’s forests or cross into refugee camps in Thailand.

The State Administration Council’s effort to suppress the opposition alliance has engendered a vast humanitarian crisis. “Thousands and thousands have been killed, 2.3 million people have been displaced, and 18.6 million in Myanmar are in need right now of humanitarian aid,” Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Myanmar, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “Half the country has fallen into poverty. The education system doesn’t exist for millions of children. The health care system is in shambles.”

The church in Myanmar, the aid official said, wishes to be regarded by all sides “as a force for mediation and peace-building.”

A humanitarian aid official who works in the region, responding to America by email, said the people of Myanmar, after enduring years of brutality, have come to feel abandoned by the global community. “The Burmese feel they are a nation, a church and a community on the edge in a number of ways,” the official said. “On the edge of awareness by the international community; on the edge of interest by the superpowers; on the edge of practical support, as louder voices have claimed more central support for other crises; and on the edge of an abyss, with the dire consequences of a power-hungry elite pulling the country into complete disintegration.”

The aid worker, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, said the treatment of the minority Catholic Church in Myanmar has “worsened dramatically” as the conflict has progressed. Many church sites that had been used as sanctuaries by noncombatants have been shelled or fired upon. Assumption Church in Narnattaw, Loikaw, in Kayah State became the most recent, destroyed by army shelling on Feb. 12, he said.

But he also believes the Myanmar church has reason for hope. It has found a powerful new voice in Bishop Shwe. The bishop personally joined his flock among the ranks of the nation’s displaced people when he was forced to abandon the diocesan pastoral center and Christ the King Cathedral in Loikaw in November.

In a letter to the diocese, Bishop Shwe described what happened: “On the night of November 26, the military intentionally shot [at] the pastoral center with 120 mm artillery pieces many times and the roof of the chapel of the pastoral center was hit and the ceiling was destroyed by the artillery shells.” The S.A.C. army seized the pastoral center and cathedral and now uses the compound to launch attacks against opposition forces in Kayah.

According to Fides, the news service of the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bishop Shwe and other clergy and staff from Loikaw “live as displaced persons, partly in parishes spared by the conflict, partly in health centers and religious houses, and sometimes in tents or makeshift shelters among the faithful scattered in the woods.”

The treatment of the minority Catholic Church in Myanmar has “worsened dramatically” as the conflict has progressed.

The army’s crackdown in Loikaw has been replicated in other areas of the country where ethnic resistance groups have long been active. In the predominantly Christian state of Chin, churches, parish building sites and schools have been frequently targeted.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization, cited by the U.C.A. News agency, since the February 2021 coup, at least 100 religious sites, including 55 Christian institutions, have been destroyed in aerial and artillery attacks by government forces. Many Buddhist temples have also been hit by government forces.

“The destruction of Christian churches is deliberate to inflict psychological trauma on a specific religious and cultural community. They are not collateral damage,” Salai Za Uk Ling, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization, told U.C.A. News.

The humanitarian aid official believes that despite gross imbalances in military capacity and resources, the armed resistance to the generals has been growing in strength. The Tatmadaw’s “indiscriminate artillery and bombing” seems to have only energized well-established ethnic army opposition, he said.

But the official doubts that the recent battlefield successes by opposition forces will be enough to compel the junta to negotiate the release of prisoners and the restoration of democratic order. “The generals waging this war,” he said, “live in a scarcely imaginable cocoon, sheltered from everyday reality.” According to the aid official, that alternative reality “is propped up by trade, financial and materiel support from China, and to a lesser extent Thailand.”

In a sign of its weakening tactical position against the regional ethnic forces arrayed against it, the Myanmar’s ruling council recently announced plans to reinstate military conscription.

He notes that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been entirely ineffective in pressing for an end to the conflict—too many member states are themselves led by military oligarchies to be able to credibly admonish Myanmar’s generals. The official believes it has become increasingly clear that “China calls the shots” in the region. That was demonstrated in January when Chinese officials brokered a cease-fire to allow safe passage for Chinese nationals who had been caught up in a human trafficking scam in northern Myanmar.

The church in Myanmar, the aid official said, wishes to be regarded by all sides “as a force for mediation and peace-building.” Its consistent “presence and witness” may bear fruit eventually, he said, “but realism suggests this will not happen in the immediate future.”

An opportunity may be close, however. In a sign of its weakening tactical position against the regional ethnic forces arrayed against it, the ruling council recently announced plans to reinstate military conscription. The draft will likely prove a source of tension with the broader public and perhaps an opportunity to begin a dialogue toward a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

The opposition National Unity Government urged the public not to comply with the law in a statement on Feb. 12. “It is clear that the military junta, having suffered significant and humiliating defeats across the country, is desperate,” the statement said. “It now seeks to force Myanmar civilians to fight and to serve as human shields in a horrific war of its own making against its own people.”

In a statement on Jan. 28, Pope Francis said, “For three years now the cry of pain and the din of weapons have taken the place of the smile that characterizes the people of Myanmar.” He said he joined Myanmar’s bishops in a prayer that “the weapons of destruction may be transformed into instruments to grow in humanity and justice.”

The pope, who visited Myanmar and Bangladesh in 2017, also remembered in his statement the suffering of Rohingya Muslims. They had been driven out of northern Myanmar by Tatmadaw and irregular militias into Bangladesh in 2017.

The pope appealed for humanitarian aid for both the Rohingya and for communities dislocated by war in Myanmar. He urged an end to a conflict that began with the generals’ claims of fraud after a free election had once again endorsed Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership—a feat the generals have never been able to achieve themselves.

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