Myanmar’s military has been accused of torching churches and killing and detaining pastors in its latest brutal offensive in the majority-Christian Chin state on the country’s northwest border with India.
he targeting of religious institutions and clergy comes amid a growing humanitarian disaster in its border regions.
Clashes are becoming more common between the junta — which seized power earlier this year — guerrilla groups and ethnic armies.
Chin State, which has strongly resisted the February coup and has a 90pc Christian population, has become a flashpoint and the United Nations, activists and insurgent groups have warned of a build-up of troops and military equipment that could herald a major assault.
“The situation in north-western Burma has echoes of the situation in Rakhine state in 2017 before the military offensive against the Rohingya,” said Anna Roberts, of Burma Campaign UK. The military’s brutal ethnic cleansing operation in Rakhine prompted a mass exodus to Bangladesh of its Muslim minority, many of whom remain in refugee camps.
Christine Schraner Burgener, the UN special envoy for Myanmar, said the country was already facing “an internal armed conflict” and warned the military was conducting clearing operations in Chin.
In recent months the military has stepped up attacks in the region, which is inhabited by around 480,000 people, with jets bombing towns, army raids on villages and heavy artillery used against civilian targets, forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes. Churches have been caught in the crossfire.
According to the August-September report of Chin Human Rights Organisation (CHRO), at least seven churches in five towns were damaged or destroyed by deliberate shelling or soldiers with small arms, though some have cited higher figures.
One young pastor was shot and killed, while two others were arrested and detained and are feared to have been tortured by the army. A church in the central township of Mindat was occupied by troops who ripped up Bibles and threw them on the floor.
Earlier this month, troops stormed Rialti, a village near the state capital Hakha, after the Chin Defence Force had reportedly attacked a military convoy in nearby Falam.
Most villagers fled before the junta’s troops arrived to retaliate but U Sang Hnin, 72, watched as 40 truckloads of soldiers set fire to homes and the Baptist church where villagers had worshipped for 50 years.
“They were noisy and I could hear voices. As they were about to leave the village, they set fire to a church on one side of the road.
“The remaining five houses were also set on fire,” he said.
“There were 14 houses in the village. There are only three houses left.
“The burning of churches and the burning of homes were not the result of fighting but deliberate arson.
“This is really an insult. They do not care about our religion,” said Rev Law Ha Lin, of the Chin Baptist Convention. “In the current situation, communities are seen as enemy camps.”
For decades, the military has unleashed its ruthless tactics against ethnic minorities who live along the borders with Thailand, China and India.
Insurgent groups that have long battled the military in those areas have been supportive of
pro-democracy protesters and the growing patchwork of people’s defence forces that have sprung up as the entire country mobilises against the junta.
“The military in Myanmar have pursued an extreme Burman Buddhist nationalist agenda for decades, which has led them to persecute ethnic and religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims,” said Benedict Rogers, senior analyst for East Asia at Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
“Of course the regime suppresses all dissent and opposition, but it targets religious minorities with especially severe brutality. In addition, Christianity is very much at the heart of Chin identity and churches are very influential in Chin society. They are targeted for this reason too.”
In September, the gunning down of Cung Biak Hum, 31, a pastor and young father, stunned the Christian community. He was shot in the head as he helped people trying to save their homes after troops raided his hometown of Thantlang and set it ablaze.
CHRO says the conflict in Chin has prompted 30,000-35,000 people to flee to Mizoram State, in neighbouring India, and has displaced about 20,000 people in Mindat township who desperately need food and medical care.
Around 10,000 people have abandoned Thantlang, leaving a handful of frightened people in its ruins.
Among them, U No Hei, is sheltering from bombs and gunfire while trying to care for his elderly mother who has heart disease, and her friend who has tuberculosis.
They are surviving on rainwater and their remaining three bags of rice.
“If they (the military) find us, they will arrest or kill us,” he said in a phone interview. “About a month from now, we will run out of medicine. I do not know what will happen then.”
Salai Za Uk Ling’s, CHRO’s deputy executive director, warned unprecedented numbers of troops had arrived after the army threatened to reduce Chin to ashes. He appealed to the international community to keep a close eye on events.
Telegraph Media Group Limited