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Myanmar

Christians in Myanmar's ethnic regions bear brunt of conflict

Military attacks on Karen and Kachin areas have displaced thousands as many attempt to flee to Thailand

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: May 04, 2021 06:15 AM GMT

Updated: May 04, 2021 06:27 AM GMT

Christians in Myanmar's ethnic regions bear brunt of conflict

A protester holds a placard supporting the Kachin Independence Army and Kachin Independence Organisation during a demonstration against the military coup in Hpakant in Kachin state on May 2. (Photo: Kachinwaves/AFP)

Thousands of people including the elderly, children and pregnant women didn’t have time to pack their belongings as they fled their homes as the military launched airstrikes in Karen state in southeastern Myanmar last month.

As of April 30, more than 3,000 people had fled across the border to Thailand, and more are expected as the airstrikes continue, according to the Karen Women’s Organization.

It said Thai authorities have refused to allow Karen leaders and relief groups entry to these areas to support the displaced.

“The most vulnerable especially are in urgent need of shelter, food and medical supplies,” the group said.

The military resumed airstrikes in areas controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) on April 27 after an army base was captured by KNLA troops.

As of April 20, more than 40,000 people had been displaced in southeastern Myanmar following the airstrikes and shelling of civilian areas by the military, according to a UN humanitarian update on April 30.

Relatively peaceful southeastern Myanmar witnessed the first airstrikes in 20 years on March 27

It said the humanitarian situation in the area has worsened since late March, with thousands of people having reportedly fled from their homes in Karen state.

At least 20 civilians were killed and more than 25 were injured due to the hostilities in Karen and Bago regions between March 27 and April 8, according to the UN and local aid groups.

The UN report said around 12,000 internally displaced persons in four locations in the Karen and Bago regions had been hosted since 2006.

Relatively peaceful southeastern Myanmar witnessed the first airstrikes in 20 years on March 27 after an army post was overrun near the border in an incident that claimed 10 lives.

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March 27 marked Anti-Fascist Resistance Day and the military killed at least 100 anti-coup protesters and bystanders on that day.

The mountainous state had seen minor clashes since three local militias including the Karen National Union (KNU) — one of the largest armed groups — signed a national ceasefire agreement with the government and the military in October 2015.

Tensions, however, flared up in 2018 following the deployment of six battalions to oversee road construction that prompted clashes and caused hundreds of people to flee into the jungle.

The state with a largely Christian population has seen more than 60 years of conflict between the military and the KNU that has left over 100,000 refugees, mostly ethnic Karen, in camps along the Thai border.

The Karen account for about 5 million out of Myanmar’s 54 million people and are the third-largest ethnic group following the Bamar and Shan. The majority of Karen, also known as Kayin, are Theravada Buddhists while around 15 percent are Christians. Many Karens were animists when Christian missionaries arrived in the 19th century.

The military has also stepped up its offensive in northern Kachin state, another Christian stronghold, deploying airstrikes, heavy artillery and ground attacks after several army posts were captured by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) since early March.

The renewed conflict in Kachin state has led to the displacement of over 5,800 people as 5,000 remain in churches and monasteries while 800 have returned to their homes, according to the latest UN report.

The military has continued to unleash terror against pro-democracy protesters in urban areas

More than 100,000 people have taken shelter at IDP camps in Kachin and Shan states since June 2011 following renewed fighting between the military and the KIA after breaking a 17-year truce.

Most of Kachin’s 1.7 million people are Christians, including about 116,000 Catholics.

The KNU and KIA have largely supported the anti-coup protest movement and they have publicly expressed solidarity with the people of Myanmar.

The military has continued to unleash terror against pro-democracy protesters in urban areas.

More than 765 people have been killed including at least 50 children and over 3,550 people have been detained since the Feb. 1 coup.

Christians represent a minority in the predominantly Buddhist country, accounting for 6.2 percent of the 54 million population.

Areas occupied by the Kachin, Chin, Karen and Kayah — who have faced oppression and persecution at the hands of the military for decades — are largely Christian.

The long-standing conflicts, while not religious in nature, have deeply impacted Christian communities, with the military reportedly damaging or destroying over 300 churches, according to a US Commission on International Religious Freedom report in 2020.

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