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Civilians trapped amid fighting in Myanmar’s Kayah state

Junta troops have blocked all exit routes to prevent people from fleeing the capital Loikaw
This picture taken on Oct. 28 shows a missile fired from a Myanmar military base in Lashio township, northern Shan state where heavy fighting between ethnic rebels and Myanmar military is underway near the country's northern border with China.

This picture taken on Oct. 28 shows a missile fired from a Myanmar military base in Lashio township, northern Shan state where heavy fighting between ethnic rebels and Myanmar military is underway near the country's northern border with China. (Photo: AFP)

Published: November 15, 2023 10:33 AM GMT
Updated: November 15, 2023 11:12 AM GMT

Thousands of civilians, mostly Christians, are trapped inside houses amid intense fighting in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah state on the northern tip of conflict-torn Myanmar, said Church sources.

Junta troops have blocked all roads to prevent the people from fleeing amid a resistance offensive by Karenni rebel forces, who have launched an operation codenamed ’11.11’ on Nov. 11 to seize the remote township.

Loikaw, which serves as a nerve center of the junta administration, was under siege with indiscriminate airstrikes and artillery shelling by the military forces to keep the rebel fighters at bay.

“We are terrified and unable to sleep as the airstrikes and shelling continue throughout the night,” said Catherine, a Catholic from Loikaw town.

The 65-year-old woman who goes by a single name told UCA News on Nov.14 that people are afraid to stay at home but cannot leave as the military has blocked all exit roads.

Church workers said some 700 people from various parts of Loikaw managed to flee and take refuge inside the church compound but thousands of others are still trapped inside their homes.

The Christ the King Cathedral was packed with those fleeing the fighting.

“We have arranged to shelter them inside the old church building and are arranging to meet their essential needs since Nov. 11 afternoon,” Sylvester, a church worker who uses one name, told UCA News.

He said the Sunday mass was canceled as the clergy including Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw, priests and nuns were engaged in making arrangements for people fleeing the fighting.

Fighting in Loikaw intensified ever since the so-called three brothers alliance – Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army – launched a campaign codenamed “Operation 1027” in northern Shan state two weeks ago.

The three groups have seized over 100 military and police outposts and at least four towns including Chinshwehaw near the Chinese border.

At least 20 civilians including women from Loikaw and Mobye town in Shan state have been killed in the airstrikes and shelling since Nov.11, claimed the Karenni Human Rights Group.

The Thailand-based Karenni State Interim Executive Council has appealed for “urgent humanitarian assistance” as at least 35,000 people are stuck in Loikaw township, besides Pekhon and Mobye townships in Shan state.

A military fighter jet was shot down in Kayah state on Nov.10, the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force (KNDF) claimed. But the military said it crashed due to a technical failure.

An estimated 80,000 people are housed in camps run by the Church in Kayah state, where Christians make up 46 percent of the state’s 350,000 people.

The state houses nearly 90,000 Catholics who have borne the brunt of conflict since the coup on Feb. 1, 2021. Airstrikes and shelling have hit dozens of churches and convents while 26 of the 41 parishes in Loikaw diocese have been abandoned, according to church sources.

Fresh conflict erupted in northern Shan state on Oct. 26. It has displaced almost 50,000 people in addition to the more than two million people who are internally displaced nationwide, many of them multiple times, according to a Nov. 10 report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

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