Amid Burma Conflict, Diocese Bans Two Priests From Political Involvement

The Kengtung diocese is in the Shan state of Burma, also known as Myanmar, and is heavily affected by the ongoing civil war.

A protest of the coup d'etat in Hpa-An, the capital of Karen State, Burma, on Feb. 9, 2021.
A protest of the coup d'etat in Hpa-An, the capital of Karen State, Burma, on Feb. 9, 2021. (photo: Ninjastrikers / (CC BY-SA 4.0))

A Catholic diocese in Burma has ordered two priests to stop participating in politics and posting on social media against the country’s power structure and Church officials. The priests are staunch critics of the junta whose 2021 coup launched an insurgency that the Catholic bishops hope to end. 

Father Dominic Wun Kyaw Htwe and Father Clement Angelo Ate both faced rebukes from the Diocese of Kengtung for openly opposing the junta. The two priests are living in exiled communities across the border with Thailand.

“Your active involvement in politics and your posts on social media not only cause great perplexity,” said a June 22 letter to Htwe, charging that his actions divide “public opinion and our Christian community itself.”

The June 22 letter to Htwe from Father Peter Anwe, administrator of the Diocese of Kengtung, cited his active participation in politics through being present at protest movements and through social media posts against political authorities and Church leaders “despite several warnings.”

The Kengtung diocese is in the Shan state of Burma, also known as Myanmar, and is heavily affected by the ongoing civil war, Asia News reports.  A junta overthrew the country’s government on Feb. 1, 2021. Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's elected civilian leader, was detained along with the country’s President, Win Myint. Many supporters of the government took to the streets in protest, and some took up arms and formed rebel groups.

Htwe responded to the diocese’s letter, saying, “This situation has been thought of since the beginning of the revolution. You can kick me out at once.” He said he is “proud of being far… from a society that is dominated by fear and enjoys the pursuit of financial riches rather than justice and truth.”

“I have a very strong love of my mother religion,” the priest said, saying the present is a time “when there is a clear distinction between right and wrong.” The warning to him has strengthened his resolve to “fight harder” 

Ate, the other priest rebuked by his diocese, said he would continue “fighting and standing with our suffering people” and “do as much as I can for them.”

Some Church leaders have been outspoken. Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon has strongly objected to the military’s death sentences for some activists.

“As cardinal of Myanmar I plead — from the very depths of my heart — with the junta, not to hang these men, and I appeal to the world to act,” he said at an international conference last Monday. “If the regime goes through with this, it marks a new low for this already brutal, barbaric, inhumane and criminal junta.”

In January, Cardinal Bo told Vatican Radio his country suffers from “spiraling chaos, confusion, conflict, and human agony.” The country’s bishops are trying to accompany the people, advocate for humanitarian access, and urge all parties in the conflict to make peace.

Catholics make up only 1% of the country’s population, which is majority Buddhist.

Some 1,900 people have died and another 1 million have been displaced under the junta's repressive control of the country, Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva earlier this month. Thousands more have been arrested, she said, and an estimated 14 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian aid.

In the Diocese of Loikaw in eastern Burma, almost half of the parishes have been abandoned because of intense fighting. At least nine churches in the diocese have been hit by government military shelling and airstrikes, according to the report.

Father Htwe, 34, joined the protests immediately after the coup. After receiving warnings from backers of the coup, he was warned he would be arrested. He fled his parish of St. Anthony of Padua in February 2021 and hid in a border town for six months before crossing into Thailand, disguised as a plantation coffee worker, according to Asia News.

He began to help a Thai priest at a parish in the Diocese of Chiang Rai that mainly serves Akha people, the same ethnicity as Htwe. He ministered the sacraments and gave catechism lessons, but also collected donations of money, food, and clothing for refugees from Burma.

“Our dreams, our hopes and our future have been taken away from us. Our lives were destroyed by terrorist and murderous soldiers,” he told AsiaNews in April. 

He denounced the Burmese army and said people in Burma are “tortured, raped and burned alive.” 

“We want to see at least the right to life as human beings recognized. Myanmar's should not only be an internal problem, it should be an international issue because these are crimes against humanity,” he said.

The priest accused the Chinese government of backing the junta in Burma over the democratically elected government.

In an April letter on Holy Thursday 2022, Father Htwe called for “concrete actions” from the international community.

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