YANGON, Burma (Morning Star News) – The Burma (Myanmar) military in April bombed predominantly Christian, ethnic Kachin civilians and restricted aid to displaced villagers trapped in the wilds, sources said.
Burma government forces fired artillery and dropped bombs on Awng Lawt village in mid-April near the northern town of Tanai, Kachin state, sending 2,000 villagers fleeing their homes, according to local Christian leaders. Sin Gau, a member of Kachin Baptist Convention, told Morning Star News the Burma army also bombed bases of the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and civilians in nearby villages.
“Fighting continues in Tanai region – villagers are fleeing,” Sin Gau said. “Some arrived in Myitkyina [capital of Kachin state], but some are trapped. Some are missing. We lost contact with them. We don’t hear anything about them.”
Sin Gau said the Burma army also restricted access of aid into conflict-stricken areas where villagers are trapped. There are landmines in nearby villages where fighting is taking place that also make it difficult for local villagers and aid groups to provide aid, he said.
Due to escalating fighting in Tanai and Hpakant in Kachin state since early April, rights groups and the United Nations estimated there are 4,000 displaced people, many of them seeking shelters in church buildings. The displaced include the elderly and children who have walked for days to escape the escalation in Kachin state, where most of the population is Christian.
As bombs and artillery shelling landed in their villages and in surrounding areas, the displaced carried what they could on their way to safer places, aided by local Christian leaders. Pregnant women, the disabled and children were among the displaced civilians.
In separate fighting in Kasot village, in Mohnyin District on April 20, the Burma army used airstrikes and artillery shelling that forced hundreds of villagers to seek shelter from the Kachin Baptist Church and a Roman Catholic church in Lan Gwa village in Namti town, according to local sources.
While thousands are displaced, local aid groups said there are concerns that many villagers remain trapped in conflict-stricken areas. They called on Burmese government to allow humanitarian access to displaced communities.
Knut Ostby, U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator in Burma, said in a statement on April 20 that he was deeply concerned about the reports of an escalation in armed conflict in several areas in Kachin State since April 7.
“I have been particularly alarmed of reports of civilian casualties and the plight of communities affected by the fighting,” Ostby said. “These civilians include women, as well as pregnant and breastfeeding women, children, elderly people, sick and injured people, who are in a dire situation and in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection.”
He urged all parties involved in conflicts to allow displaced villagers to move to safer places, and he reminded them “of their obligations under International Humanitarian Law.”
The U.S. Embassy in Rangoon also released a statement on Friday (April 27), saying it was “deeply concerned about intensified fighting in Kachin state, which has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.”
“We call upon the government, including the military, to protect civilian populations and allow humanitarian assistance to be delivered to those affected by the conflicts,” read the statement.
Christian ethnic minorities have long suffered in Burma, where the government has recognized the special status of Buddhism and promoted it as a means to consolidate support. Burma is about 80 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian.
The Burma military routinely occupies churches and summons entire congregations for interrogation, according to a report the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released in December 2016.
“The Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] occupied Chin, Naga, and Kachin areas and routinely occupied, desecrated, or destroyed places of worship, Christian crosses, and other sacred sites,” the report states. “This practice continues today in active armed conflict zones.”
The military continues to perpetrate grave human rights violations with near total impunity, including sexual violence in church compounds and the torture of pastors, church workers, and ordinary civilians, according to the report, “Hidden Plight: Christian Minorities in Burma.”
After more than five years of intensified conflict since Burma violated the 17-year cease-fire in 2011, many Kachin face protracted displacement and are desperate to return home, according to the report.
Government military operations in northern Burma (Myanmar) escalated in December, culminating in civilian casualties on Christmas Eve that left Christians feeling attacked in part for their faith. Offensives against rebel groups in Kachin state displaced dozens of villagers and seriously injured two civilians on Christmas Eve, local sources said.
The Burma army and KIA have been fighting since 2011 following the breakdown of a bilateral ceasefire.
The fighting that escalated in early December 2017 in Kachin state has spread to Shan state, in northeastern Burma, where the Burma army reportedly also used helicopters and jets, according to rebel sources. Shelling further spread in Shan state on New Year’s Eve, forcing more than 900 local villagers in Kyaukme Township and Namhsan Township to flee, according to the Relief and Resettlement Department in Kyaukme.
KIA is one of some 20 ethnic rebel groups that have fought for self-determination, autonomy, freedom and other fundamental rights since Burma gained independence from the British in 1948. The Burmese government and ethnic rebels have been in peace talks since 2011, and eight rebel groups have signed bilateral ceasefire agreements and a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement with the Burmese government.
More than 10 ethnic rebel groups, including the powerful Kachin Independence Organization and ethnic Wa, Kokang and Palaung peoples, haven’t signed the agreements.
Ethnic groups believe the fighting in Kachin state is meant to pressure the KIO to sign the ceasefire agreement.
Burma ranked 24th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2018 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.