Updated: April 22, 2021 08:31 AM GMT
Karen refugees near the Salween River in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, on March 29. (Photo: Karen Women's Organization)
Catholics in a northern Thai province have been supporting thousands of displaced Karen refugees from Myanmar — in stark contrast to the Thai government’s unwelcoming policy regarding refugees and migrants from the military-ruled neighboring country.
Church leaders joined by Catholics in Chiang Mai have welcomed and supported thousands of Karen refugees with aid after they fled their homes in Myanmar’s Kayin state and hid in the forest near the Thanlyin River on the Thai-Myanmar border.
Bishop Francis Xavier Vira Arpondratana of Chiang Mai told Agenzia Fides that the diocesan team of lay volunteers, priests and nuns has been providing aid to Karen people in two locations south of Salawin National Park near the border.
Bishop Vira also appealed to church groups in Thailand to assist the refugees with aid including money, water, food, medicine and daily essentials.
Sister Aranya Kitbunchu, president of the Federation of Religious Superiors in Thailand, has joined with Ching Mai Diocese and Caritas Thailand in the rescue operation for refugees.
"The refugees are in a desperate situation: they need food, water, medicine and other basic services to survive these difficult times", said Sister Aranya, who acts as the coordinator of volunteers and representatives of religious orders responding to the refugee emergency since late March.
Some 3,000 mostly Christian Karen people have crossed the border into Thailand to avoid the conflict
Fighting between Karen rebels and the Myanmar army has escalated since the military coup that ousted the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government of Aung Sang Suu Kyi on Feb. 1.
Amid the upsurge in skirmishes, the military launched airstrikes coupled with ground attacks in five areas allegedly controlled by the Karen National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the Karen National Union.
The attacks left three civilians dead and wounded seven others, forcing more than 10,000 people to flee their homes and hide in the forest. Some 3,000 mostly Christian Karen people have crossed the border into Thailand to avoid the conflict.
The Thai government of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former military chief, has been unwelcoming to refugees from Myanmar. The European Karen Network alleged that Thai authorities blocked humanitarian aid to Myanmar refugees and deported dozens despite the threat of violence in Karen villages. The move triggered an outcry from human rights groups.
Before slipping back to military rule following a quasi-democracy since 2015, Myanmar has experienced military junta regimes for about five decades.
During the military rule, the country with some 135 ethnic communities, has endured long-running civil wars between ethnic rebel groups and the military, forcing more than 500,000 to become internal displaced persons and an estimated 130,000 refugees forced to live in extreme conditions in refugee camps in Thailand.
Pro-democracy protests have engulfed Myanmar since the coup
In 2016 and 2017, two military crackdowns against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state forced more than 700,000 to flee and to seek sanctuary in neighboring Bangladesh.
Christians in Buddhist Myanmar account for about 6 percent in a population of about 54 million, according to World Watch Monitor.
However, Christian-majority Kachin, Kayin, Shan and Chin states are among the worst hit by decades-long conflicts between rebels and the military.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy protests have engulfed Myanmar since the coup and a declaration of a state of emergency has seen more than 700 anti-coup protesters killed by security forces including police and soldiers.