JEYANG, Myanmar — A bright but quiet Sunday morning in a sun-lit valley is broken by the sound of hymns sung from inside two adjacent wood and bamboo halls. Inside the larger structure, about 300 Baptists sing hymns, Not to be outdone, a smaller congregation of Catholics, mostly children, sings along during Mass.
Both halls are temporary churches, built last July for Kachin people forced to flee an advancing Burmese army after a ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down. Since then, around 70,000 Kachin have fled the fighting, with most staying in ramshackle camps such as Jeyang.
The KIA seeks greater self-government for the Kachin people in northern Myanmar. Around 90% of Kachin are Christian. Conversions from animism began as British adventurers and missionaries — and eventually, British colonists — entered Kachin territory in the 1800s.
Rev. Chin Le Zau Awng is a Baptist pastor in Jeyang camp who fled the fighting along with his congregation from Ban Dawng village, which is 20 miles away.
“It was a one-day walk through the jungle,” he recalled. “The people ran when they heard the army approach.”
That decision meant that nobody was harmed by soldiers who have earned a reputation for brutality in Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions in recent decades, with countless stories of rape and enslavement of women, forced labor and kidnapping of men, as well as arbitrary executions of civilians.
More than 20 Kachin women have reportedly been raped and/or abducted by the Burmese army during the current fighting. Some of the women were murdered, while others are reported as missing.
Kachin state is a resource-rich land, with jade and gold underground and teak-laden forests growing on the region’s vast and sweeping mountains. Through the hills and valleys run rivers that are a lucrative source of hydropower, but mostly for the Burmese government, which has cut deals with China to sell most of the electricity across the border, another factor fuelling local resentment at Burmese rule.
Standing in the middle of Jeyang camp, set up to house people made homeless by fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and Burma’s military, it is possible to pick up a pebble from the roadside and lob the stone into China. The Jeyang river running alongside the camp marks the frontier between the two countries, though this stretch is controlled by the KIA rather than the Myanmar government. It is a scenic valley, where the temperature rises to around 30 degrees Celsius during the day, but drop to a cool 5 or 6 at night.
Presidential Order Unheeded
The Kachin fought alongside U.S. and British forces in Burma during World War II, taking huge risks to carry the fight to the occupying Japanese, to whom the Kachin refused to surrender. A mountain people traditionally held to be skilled hunters, part of the reason the Kachin are said to have converted to Christianity rather than Buddhism is that they thought the latter meant a ban on hunting in the hills.
The Kachin only became part of Burma during British colonial rule — when missionaries brought Christianity to the region — and only agreed to remain part of the country if the Burmese government agreed to a federal government, giving the country’s minorities substantial autonomy.
The Burmese military would not agree to this, seeing the various minorities as secessionists, and took over Burma in a 1962 coup. Since then, Burma — or Myanmar, as it has been called in more recent times — has made global headlines due to its brutal and arbitrary rulers and because of the quietly defiant stance taken by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who won a 1990 election but was then put under house arrest for most of the intervening years.
The story of Myanmar’s minorities, such as the Kachin, is less well-known, however. Another minority, the Karen, around 30% of whom are Christian, has fought the government since the late 1940s. In fact, the latest Rambo movie shows Karen fighting alongside the eponymous hero against the Burmese army.
Cardinal Renato Martino is the Vatican’s special envoy to Burma/Myanmar and traveled to Burma’s capital, Rangoon, in late 2011 to mark the centenary of the building of St. Mary’s Cathedral, a ceremony attended by Kyi, who is a Buddhist. Cardinal Martino refused to comment on his visit to Myanmar when asked by this correspondent during a subsequent visit to Bangkok, where he led a pre-Christmas celebration.
Myanmar’s government has undertaken several surprising reforms in recent months, freeing prominent political prisoners and pledging to allow a free press. But an order from the president, a former army general named Thein Sein, for the army to stop fighting in Kachin, appears to have gone unheeded. Church groups in Kachin state say that several acts of vandalism and desecration of churches have been perpetrated in recent months.
Restrictions on Religion
Although Burma has not held a census since 1983, 60% of the country’s population are thought to be ethnic Burmans, who are mostly Buddhist, with the remainder divided between dozens of ethnic groups, whose religious breakdown is a mix of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and animist.
Buddhist monks and monasteries have not escaped government persecution, with savage reprisals meted out after the Buddhist monk-led “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, the last mass protest against military rule in Burma.
But perhaps the worst-treated of all of Burma’s minorities are the Muslim Rohingya, who live mostly in the west of the country near the Bangladesh border. The Rohingya are denied Burmese citizenship and require official permits to marry or even to travel outside their home villages.
Back in Laiza, the temporary headquarters of the KIA, Father Joseph Nbwi Naw watches as the congregation files out of the Catholic church gate after Sunday Mass. “Twenty percent of Kachin are Catholic,” he estimates, “though we don’t know the full, exact number.” Kachin state is a patchwork of government-held and KIA-held territory, and with fighting ongoing, the front line is fluctuating every day.
Overall 600,000-700,000 Burmese are Catholic, out of a total of perhaps 2.5 million Christians in all, says Father Nbwi Naw.
“It is difficult to operate in government areas,” said the priest, who previously served in Myitkina, the Kachin state capital controlled by the Myanmar government. “The junta (the country’s military-backed government) does not allow us to build churches, and when they do, the permit can take years to approve.”
A government regulation promulgated in early 2008 bans religious meetings in unregistered venues, such as homes or cafes, which could effectively close four out of five locations where Burmese Christians worship.
Father Nbwi Naw travels to some of the camps for the Kachin displaced by fighting to say Mass for Catholics and distribute supplies — which he says are hard got — such as shelter material and rice to whoever needs them.
“The workload,” he said, “has increased a lot since the war started.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia on a roving basis.