About 29,000 Catholics "live in constant fear of war, whilst illiteracy is increasing as is drug abuse, Mgr Philip Za Hawng, bishop of Lashio, told AsiaNews in a letter.
He is particularly concerned about renewed fighting in Shan state (north-eastern Myanmar) between
ethnic rebels and the central government.
The region is economically
important as “80 per cent of trade with China" goes through it.
On 3 December, an air force plane destroyed the St Francis Xavier Church in Mung Koe (pictured).
After this, "They took everything from the rubble, and most of the faithful have fled across the border."
Here is the bishop’s letter (translated by AsiaNews).
The Diocese of Lashio includes the whole northern section of Shan
State, in north-eastern Myanmar. It covers a mostly mountainous area of
61,000 sq km, on the border with the province of Yunnan, in southern
China. The diocese is 937 km from Yangon.
The territory is home to 15 different ethnic groups for a total of
2.5 million people. Most are ethnic Shan, Ta'an (Palaung), Kachin and
Wa. Given the proximity to China, the number of Chinese is increasing
every year and more and more businesses end up in their hands.
About 90 per cent of the ethnic tribes live from agriculture. Most
are poor and uneducated. Illiteracy is still high in some groups. The
total Catholic community of 29,000 people is 75 per cent ethnic Kachin.
The cultivation of poppies and opium production that began in the
19th century in China eventually spread to Myanmar. The northern part of
Shan State is now one of the areas most affected by drug-related abuse.
Thanks to the work of Churches and some political groups, poppy
cultivation has been cut in some areas.
The eastern highway that connects the Mandalay-Yangon area to Ruili
(China) runs through Lashio diocese. Some 80 per cent of trade between
China and Myanmar uses this route.
Even the pipeline that connects
Rakhine state with Kunming (China) goes through Shan State. Hence the
route is crucial for trade between the two countries.
The ongoing conflict between the northern alliances – like the Kachin
Independence Organisation (KIO), the Ta'ang National Liberation Force
(TNLF), the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (Kokang Chinese,
MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA) – is indirectly tied to this important
The AA, TNLF, and MNDAA were excluded from the 21st century Panglong Conference
organised by the government military in late August. This has
infuriated the northern alliance, which has tried to block roads. Since
20 November, they have attacked the eastern highway, as well as several
army outposts and police stations.
The Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) evangelised the
northern part of Shan State. Lashio became a diocese in 1990 when Card
Charles Bo became its bishop. Today there are 19 parishes, including
Munggu (Mongkoe), which is the closest to the border with China.
In 1939, Fr Guercilena (PIME) purchased the land where the local
church stands from the local Kachin chief. He later became bishop of
Kengtung. The land remained unused until 1989, when Fr Joachim Ye Maung,
a Salesian priest, built a housing compound and a chapel made of
sun-baked bricks. Mongkoe received its first resident priest, Fr Roman
Dai Ze, in 2002.
The Mungkoe Mungbaw Democratic Army (MMDA), led by Mungsa La,
administered the area. When he fell, Myanmar’s military built an outpost
near the St Francis Xavier church. The place of worship was built in
2006, but was destroyed in an attack by the Myanmar military after rebel
groups went on the offensive.
Almost all civilians fled the city after 20 November. A Catholic
family took in Fr Savio Dau Khawng, Doi Awng nuns and a volunteer
teacher, whilst others found refuge in camps set up by the authorities
in Man-hai, China. St Francis Xavier church is just one kilometre from
The brutal fighting between the army and rebels include attacks by
land and by air. Combat operations ended in Mongkoe on 4 December, and
also, apparently in neighbouring areas. However, the authorities have
not yet allowed civilians to return to their homes; instead, government
personnel have moved into Mongkoe to get on with their duty of
Yesterday, Fr Savio was able to visit the church compound, but could
not see all the rooms or take photographs. He saw that cabinets had been
forced open and that all the items (linens, books, archives) had been
Mongkoe’s Catholic community and locals have lived for years in fear
of fighting, fleeing government troops and their summary arrests of
those suspected of cooperating with the rebels.
On the other hand, the revolutionary forces want the cooperation of
local and irregularly enlist men. As many young people have been forced
to join armed groups, parents have sent them to Church-run schools under
the supervision of priests and nuns.
Decades of political turmoil have caused many problems: poverty,
internal and external migration, educational decline. . . Growing drug
abuse (heroin and methamphetamine) and HIV-AIDS are indirectly related
to the war between rebels and Myanmar’s military.
On the long run, to reach peace, it is necessary:
- to rewrite the country’s constitution drafted and approved by referendum in 2008;
- to place the Defence Ministry under the authority of the president
and the government (at present generals and government ministers appear
to act independently of one another);
- to get the military to start a dialogue with all the ethnic armed
groups fighting for equality, justice and a fair power sharing as well
as create the federal states as envisaged in the Panglong Conference by
State Councillor Suu Kyi;
- to enforce a cease-fire with all national armed groups, during
which the military and rebels cannot build new military outposts with UN
observers to monitor the process.
* Bishop of Lashio, Myanmar