Myanmar junta forces have occupied churches and destroyed stocks of food aid for refugees during clashes with ethnic armed forces and militias that oppose the Feb. 1 military takeover, local officials told RFA.
The military has been embroiled in fighting with many of the hundreds of militia groups formed by citizens to oppose the junta, some of which are receiving training and support from armed ethnic groups that have been fighting with Myanmar’s military for decades.
In the country’s western Chin state, home to the mostly Christian ethnic Chin population, fighting between the military and local Chinland Defense Force (CDF) militias has raged since April.
During their campaign against the CDF, the junta’s forces set up posts inside churches, and in a church in Mindat township, troops drank liquor and destroyed copies of the Bible, a pastor told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“They were drinking and behaving in the local church in Chat Village of Mindat Township, as if it was a tavern. There is much destruction in the church,” Chin Baptist Convention general secretary Law Ha Ling said.
He said soldiers defaced other places of worship in Chin state, including a Catholic church in Tal village in Falam Township on August 5, which they occupied for five days.
In recent clashes with the CDF, three churches in Mindat were also damaged, including the Great Catholic Church, which was broken into by soldiers.
“This shouldn’t have happened. I think they should be even more careful, especially in a country like ours, which is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country that we have built together,” Law Ha Ling said.
“Whoever rules the country should not let this kind of thing happen… by insulting a religion, it could be seen as an insult to the ethnic nationalities who believe in that religion,” he said.
Fighting destroyed two Baptist churches in the Chin state town of Kanpetlet on Aug. 6, a resident told RFA on condition of anonymity.
“This is a war crime because we know that soldiers are not allowed to be deployed in public buildings such as churches and hospitals,” said Salai Za Op Lin, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Organization.
Junta spokesman Maj. Gen Zaw. Min Tun was unavailable for comment on the occupation and destruction of churches.
During its campaign in Chin state, the military destroyed stocks of food, at least some of which would go to feed refugees, a member of the local shadow government in Mindat township told RFA.
“The most important thing right now is rice. During the fighting, as the military passed through the villages, they doused the rice bags with diesel fuel or cut them open on the ground. There will be food shortages soon,” the administrator told RFA.
According to records compiled by RFA and relief groups, fighting since the February overthrow of Myanmar’s elected government has displaced around 280,000 people.
Fighting in eastern Kayah state has displaced more than 130,000 people, while another 70,000 refugees are sheltering parts of Karen and Mon states that are controlled by the Karen National Union (KNU), according to Naw Wa Khushee, spokeswoman for the Karen Peace Support Network, a refugee relief group.
In Kachin state, 336 post-coup clashes between the junta forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have displaced around 10,000 people, according to the Kachin Political Interim Coordination Team (KPICT), a group formed after the coup to advocate for the Kachins during military rule.
A local resident, who did not want to be named for security reasons, said that refugees had to live in makeshift shelters because there was no proper camp in Kachin state.
“There must be thousands of people as they came from about 500 houses from four villages,” the resident said, adding that they sometimes take refuge in churches at night and return home or to work in the morning.
In Shan state, refugees face additional difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Maing Mai, a schoolteacher helping refugees in the eastern state.
“Some of the refugees are having difficulty getting enough food. A lot of things are not going well. Previously, there were many aid organizations, but COVID-19 brought about a lockdown in the camps,” Maing Mai said.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) told RFA that it estimated some 200,000 refugees were in Kachin, Kayah, Kayin and Chin states and the Sagaing and Magway regions.
The Kachin Baptist Church (KBC) told RFA that it is trying to win the release of three Christian pastors detained for holding peace prayer services.
Rev. Koshan Singsar of the KBC, Rev. Z Kaw Htinah of Christ Church and Rev. M Hawng Di of the Rawan Baptist Church, each in their 60s, held the special prayer service March 3, where they allegedly used the phrase “ending military dictatorship,” in violation of section 505 (a) of Myanmar’s Penal Code, which forbids defamation of the military.
The three pastors were arrested June 28 and are currently held at Nam Hot Prison in Putao township.
Their lawyer in July asked for the court to grant them bail, but the court asked him to file for bail at the next hearing. The courts where then shut down due to a nationwide upswing in the COVID-19 pandemic and the men remain in detention.
M Hawng Di has kidney and stomach diseases as well as diabetes, and Koshan Singsar has suffered a stroke. All three pastors face a high risk of contracting COVID-19 in prison, Nogmung residents told RFA.
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