The plight of Myanmar’s Christians continues to worsen, Aung San Phyo tells Ruadhán Jones
In the way of the modern news cycle, the plight of Myanmar (formerly Burma) has disappeared from view, having once dominated our papers, screens and Twitter feeds. Since the military completed a violent coup February 1 of this year, the situation has gone from bad to worse, particularly for the Christian minorities, says Aung San Phyo.
Mr Phyo fled Myanmar as a refugee in 1988, the year of another military coup, and has been living in Ireland since 1997. Many of his family, however, are still living in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the former capital of Myanmar. He explains that the escalating attacks on churches and church communities in Myanmar are a continuation of their oppression in the country.
“This government have been targeting the Christians, particularly the minority group Christians and Muslims,” Mr Phyo tells me over the phone. “You’ve probably heard about the Rohingya Muslim in Myanmar. There was a genocide committed by the military against them, well known and well recorded.
For instance, for the Malay Christians, you are not able to get a senior position in the government”
“But not many observers or people know about the operation against the Christians, particularly in the ethnic minority, like Chin, Kachin and more. Most of them are either Catholic or Baptist Christians. They have been oppressed all along the way, but not many people have heard of these oppressions,” Mr Phyo explains.
The oppression of Myanmar’s Christian minorities, who make up 6.2% of a population of 54 million, can be traced back to the early life of the nation. Since Burma/Myanmar achieved independence from Britain in 1948, its Christians have been largely excluded from positions of power, Mr Phyo says.
“For instance, for the Malay Christians, you are not able to get a senior position in the government,” he continues. “There’s hardly any Christian in the government. Even in the army, where there are quite a lot of Christians, they won’t get a high rank. That’s been going on a long time, but not many people heard about it.”
This mistreatment of Christians has escalated during the coup, with churches and church congregations deliberately targeted by military forces. The people of the Kayah State in eastern Myanmar, whose population is 45% Christian and which is a Catholic stronghold according ucanews.com, have been the victims of many of the attacks.
“Recently at the Catholic Church in Demoso [in Kayah], the priest was giving shelter to the displaced people from their villages, after the military attacked those villages,” Mr Phyo begins. “The priest gave them accommodation and shelter in the church. The military started bombing and then shooting that church.
“People taking shelter in the church were shot dead. Then quite a few got injured. So the church had to be evacuated and the priest and the boarders had to relocate to the jungle. That’s where they are, making their own temporary accommodation.
“Particularly in Kayah state, they’ve been attacked and shelled by the military. It’s very sad. The Catholic religious groups, they pleaded with the military not to bomb the places of worship. The military promised not to do it, but they didn’t keep their word, they keep shelling and shooting at the churches.”
St Joseph’s Church in Demoso was one of three attacked in quick succession in late May and early June. Despite these attacks, the Catholic Church continues to do its best to support refugees and internally displaced people, Mr Phyo says.
“The Catholic Church, they are very good,” he continues. “They are helping all the people who are suffering, particularly in the Kayah state, they are giving out the food to refugees and internally displaced people. Even one of the sisters, she came out of the church because the military was attacking all these innocent protestors.
“She came out and told them to stop doing that – and surprisingly, the police stopped. She knelt in front of the police, she begged them please do not do that. There was praise for this nun. They are trying to help all these innocent people in Burma,“ he finishes.
They are up against it, however, as the experience of Mr Phyo’s family shows. His sister has been particularly affected. She works as a teacher and, along with thousands of other civil servants, she has refused to work under the military government.
“We call it the civil disobedience movement,” Mr Phyo explains. “The majority of the civil servants are in this movement. The government either suspends them from their work or they fire them from their job. So my sister was fired from her job, along with 40 or 50 teachers in her school.
“This is really affecting the government mechanisms as well, because the government is not able to open the universities, all the hospitals, the banks are not able to work regularly, their transport – like train drivers – the trains are not able operate regularly, it is affecting the whole country.”
Mr Phyo says that he and his father are heartbroken that they cannot visit, as his father loves seeing his grandchildren.
“I started visiting regularly every year until two years ago, because of Covid last year and this year I can’t go because of the military coup. It is a bit heart-breaking for my father who is 85 years old, and my two sisters and brother, particularly my father because he likes to see his grandchildren. I have four children here, so he is heartbroken as well.”
Mr Phyo’s family still live in Rangoon, the former capital, where the infrastructure had been improving steadily for the last ten years, since the democratic election of a civilian government in 2010.
“We had proper buses and electricity, people are free to talk and to pray,” Mr Phyo says. “Now sadly, they are all lost. In places like Rangoon, people are so desperate and they hate the military so much. All of the country, people started fighting the military with whatever weapons they can. In Rangoon, it’s particularly bad, there’s bomb explosions everywhere. They are trying to attack the police, the military, whatever way they can.
“My family, my father and my sister, they are all scared. They say to me, we just want to die – they don’t want to live under the military government because there’s so much oppression and so much fear. You’re afraid to go out because the military can stop anyone for any reason… They are all living with fear: nobody wants to live with the fear, you know.”
An impassioned plea
Mr Phyo finishes our conversation with an impassioned plea to Myanmar, and the world: “I just want to plead, to all people, to pray for Burma and ask the military government not to commit further violence and try to have a peaceful dialogue to return to democratic government in the country. We need the international community to have more a decisive intervention to return peace and harmony in the country again. But we can only get this through negotiation, violence is not going to work.”