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Myanmar’s Catholic villagers live in mortal fear

Many have fled to cities and townships fearing airstrikes and raids by junta troops
Myanmar refugees collect water at Pang village in India's eastern state of Mizoram on Sept. 24, 2021

Myanmar refugees collect water at Pang village in India's eastern state of Mizoram on Sept. 24, 2021. (Photo: AFP/ UCAN files)

Published: August 01, 2022 10:24 AM GMT
Updated: August 01, 2022 12:02 PM GMT

On the sunny Sunday morning of July 17, Catholics attended Mass and returned home peacefully only to hear news of military raids at a nearby Buddhist village in the afternoon.

All hell broke loose in Mon Hla, a historic Catholic village in Myanmar’s embattled Sagaing region, as the residents rushed to pack whatever food, clothes and other essentials they could gather and fled on motorcycles, tricycles, light trucks and bullock-pulled carts.

The young and able-bodied ensured the elderly, women and children left the village before they followed them to hide in the nearby paddy fields to the east of the village praying for safety.

On the morning of July 18, they heard fighter jets and helicopters approaching the fields and starting to shoot indiscriminately.

“We were trembling with fear as some of us lay flat on the ground. Others hid under the big trees. We dared not speak a word and prayed in silence,” said Martha Tin.

Tin said like many of the villagers she had never witnessed a military airstrike before and the experience left them traumatized.

"They shot and arrested some people before setting fire to homes, a mosque and school buildings"

“We are unable to sleep well and are likely to flee the village if we hear gunfire again,” she said.

Catholic and Buddhist villagers from Mon Hla have repeatedly fled their homes for fear of being attacked by junta troops in recent months.

The July 18 airstrike came after more than 500 homes in Chan Thar and at least 320 homes in Chaung Yoe, both Catholic villages, were set ablaze by junta troops on June 7 and May 20 respectively.  

At least ten people were killed in the raids. Some of the bodies could not be identified as they were charred beyond recognition, according to local sources and media reports.

A predominantly Muslim village of Kyi Su was also targeted on July 18.

Reports said dozens of soldiers were airdropped into the village where Muslims and Buddhists live together. They shot and arrested some people before setting fire to homes, a mosque and school buildings.

"The brutality of Myanmar’s military has been unleashed for the longest time in ethnic Christian areas"

Mon Hla, Chan Thar and Chaung Yoe are part of Mandalay Archdiocese and are known as Bayingyi villages whose residents claim descent from Portuguese adventurers who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries. The villages have produced many bishops, priests, religious nuns and brothers.

The junta has in recent months stepped-up offensives in the Sagaing region causing thousands of people to flee to safer areas. Mobile phones and internet lines are cut off in most townships of the region.

The brutality of Myanmar’s military has been unleashed for the longest time in ethnic Christian areas like Kachin, Karen, Kayah and Chin states where raids on villages, killings of innocent civilians, arbitrary arrests and sexual violence against women continues unabated.

“I am deeply disheartened to learn about the suffering of thousands of people, especially from villages including Catholics whose homes were burned, properties looted and who have become homeless, displaced and in dire need of food and shelter,” Archbishop Marco Tin Win of Mandalay said in a video message on July 17.

Like Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, Archbishop Tin Win is a native of Mon Hla, where Buddhists and Catholics have lived together peacefully for decades.

“During a recent airstrike, there was sharing of food among villagers as some people couldn’t carry rations such as rice,” Tin said.

“We don’t know when the troops will come again and whether there will be enough time to flee"

The Catholic and Buddhist villagers returned home after spending three nights in the paddy fields. They were lucky as their homes, church and convent were left intact.

Still, a few amongst them chose to leave for their relatives' homes in the cities such as Mandalay, while others have decided to take refuge inside Church premises in nearby townships.

“We don’t know when the troops will come again and whether there will be enough time to flee,” said Mary Htar.

The Catholic woman said the village was quieter since the raid. Shops remained closed and the residents choose to remain indoors.

The ongoing conflict in Myanmar has displaced more than 783,400 people, says the United Nations. The previous conflicts in the troubled nation had resulted in 346,600 people being displaced.

*Some names have been changed for security reasons.

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