Mandalay (Agenzia Fides) - In Sittwe, capital of the Biman State of Rakhine, in western Myanmar, cyclone Mocha, which hit the area on May 14 and 15, killed at least 40 people, devastating houses, fields, also destroying the Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart in the city and irreparably damaging the premises of the adjoining parish complex, in the diocese of Pyay. The cyclone, one of the strongest to ever hit the region, swept through the entire area, even affecting Cox's Bazar, just across the border from Bangladesh, where an estimated one million Rohingya refugees, who fled after the violence they have suffered in Myanamr since 2017, are camping.
Myanmar's junta has declared Rakhine state a "disaster zone", while roads and telecommunications are cut off. Heavy flooding has affected already vulnerable communities, including hundreds of thousands of Rohingya living in ghettos where their movement is severely restricted.
The atmospheric storm, which has also affected culturally important areas such as Bagan in the Mandalay region, does not however, by its sudden violence, reach the level of seriousness of the civil conflict currently raging in the whole country. Myanmar plunged into political and social crisis after the military seized power in a coup, undermining the democratically elected government led by leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party in February 2021. The coup first gave rise to mass demonstrations and a vast movement of "civil disobedience" which blocked schools, services and public
offices. The crackdown, led by the Biman Tatmadaw army, killed civilians and arrested thousands of people as "political prisoners". The protest then took the form of armed resistance, with the emergence of the "People's Defense Forces" (FDP), made up of young Burmese who began a low-intensity guerrilla war.
These civilian militias were later joined by the already well-organized armies of ethnic minorities (Kachin, Karen, Karenni, Shan, Chin and others) who have been fighting against the central government (long composed of military personnel) for decades and who are now training the young of the Bamar ethnic group (the majority in Myanmar) in combat in order to carry out raids, small attacks against convoys or military checkpoints.
For each of these actions, the reaction of the army is extremely violent: entire villages are devastated, razed and burned, leading to increased suffering and loss among the civilian population, as well as a growing number of displaced people inside the country. Businesses, buildings and property of civilians suspected of aiding or otherwise supporting the Polar Defense Forces are bombed and destroyed. Over the months, the conflict turned into
a widespread civil war, with an asymmetrical confrontation and a great disparity of forces on the ground: on the one hand, one of the best trained and equipped armies in Asia, more than 400,000 men, with significant military and supply resources (provided by Russia, China and European nations); on the other hand, the movement of young Burmese, coagulated in the People's Defense Forces, who obtain rifles or pistols on the black market (or even from the Burmese soldiers themselves) or from the channels already activated by the minority armies, and which would constitute today, according to estimates, a front of approximately 80,000 resistance fighters.
And if the most cited source on the effects of the conflict, the "Assistance Association for Political Prisoners", reports, as of February 9, 2023, 2,981 civilian victims, according to the American research center ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project), since the beginning of the coup, the death toll of civilians (counted by first and last name thanks to reports from sources on the ground) has risen to more than 30,000 dead. In the current conflict, there is no end or glimmer of negotiation in sight, as young Burmese - a generation that has been learning and practicing democracy since 2015 - do not want to submit to the military dictatorship that rules the country for many years.
Burmese Catholic communities find themselves in this scenario, choosing to serve the poor, the suffering, the displaced, whose numbers have steadily increased over the past two years due to the fighting and destruction inflicted by the army.
Places such as Catholic churches or schools, clinics or Catholic health centers have become places of welcome for refugees and the poor. However, the suspicion that these places may contain or support resistance fighters is enough to make them bombing targets. This is how many churches were affected in several dioceses (the latest being the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in the village of Tiphul, in the diocese of Hakha, at the end of April), than in the archdiocese in Mandalay, 20 out of 42 parishes are damaged or closed. Even humanitarian services are not allowed: as Fides has learned, the army broke into three small Catholic clinics that received pregnant women and treated wounded civilians, devastating them, taking away medical equipment and burning them under the pretext that they were "treating members of the FDP".
In Mandalay, people have lived for two years with intermittent electricity, no water, no school and a bare-bones public sector. The local Church runs four large camps that house displaced people, including Catholics and families of other religions. Faced with this immense and prolonged suffering, the 62 priests of the diocese try to bring comfort by simply staying close to people, even in uncomfortable places like rice fields and forests where refugees seek refuge to escape violence.
In the current situation, they affirm that there is no concrete way out of the conflict: "Our hope does not die, even in times of darkness, sadness and pain, only because it is founded in God. We are tired of fighting and widespread violence, but we go forward with confidence in God who does not abandon us. The nation is prostrate, it is on its knees because of the crisis. We too, kneel down, invoking with all our hearts the peace and salvation of God". (PA) (Agenzia Fides, 16/5/2023)