Myanmar Christians observe silent Christmas as rebel offensive continues

The Christian community in war-torn Myanmar have celebrated a subdued Christmas this year, to show solidarity with those displaced by the internal conflict between the military junta and the rebels.

By Lisa Zengarini

Christians in Myanmar observed a low-key Christmas this year in solidarity with the hundreds of thousands of people forced to leave their homes by the intensified fighting between the military junta and ethnic rebel groups.

The military have been in power since February 2, 2021 when they removed democratically-elected Aung San Suu Kyi imposing a brutal rule over the country to crush any resistance.  

Since then, Christians in the predominantly Christian areas of Kachin, Kayah, Chin and Karen states, have not been able to celebrate Christmas and New Year due to the fighting.

At least 2.6 million displaced

The conflict has further escalated over the past two months after the Three Brotherhood Alliance (3BHA) gathering three ethnic armed groups –  the Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army launched a major offensive across the country’s northern Shan State.   The fighting has now spread to other parts on Myanmar, including Kayah, Chin and Kachin States.

More than 660,000 people have been displaced since the military campaign began  on October 27 bringing the total number of displaced people in Myanmar to some 2.6 million, according to the United Nations.

Dioceses affected by the war between military junta and rebels

Twelve dioceses, including Loikaw, Pekhon, Mandalay, out of 16 in the Asian nation have been affected by the conflict since the military coup in 2021.

In November, Bishop Celso Ba Shwe of Loikaw was forced to flee the Bishop’s House along with priests and nuns after the army occupied Christ the King Cathedral, and half the parishes in the Diocese have been abandoned by the faithful who are now displaced with their pastors. In his Christmas message Bishop Shwe invited the local Catholic community  not to be discouraged by these events, urging the fatithful  to do God’s will  trusting in Him, and encourage and to take care of each other, “to show love and do good “.

Churches and convents in Lashio Diocese in Shan State too have been damaged.

As reported by Uca News agency, in Kachin, Kayah, Chin and Karen states, Catholics have decided to observe a silent Christmas to show solidarity  with those  displaced  by the war. Christmas celebrations have been subdued in other major cities like Mandalay and Yangon.

The Rohingya crisis 

Meanwhile, as the war rages on in Myanmar the hundreds of thousands of stateless Rohingya people forced to leave their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine State by the so-called “clearance operations” conducted by the military 2016 and 2017, continue to flee to safer countries. The 2021 military coup has disproportionately affected the Rohingya population in Myanmar and heightened their vulnerability.  Most of them have taken refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh where nearly one million people live in dire conditions  in refugee camps.

Several of them also try to flee to other Asian nations, taking immense risks, including dangerous sea crossings, but have been pushed away by Malaysia, Thailand and now Indonesia.

Indonesia pushing back Rohingyas amid growing resentment of local residents

Until recently, Indonesia was known for providing a safe haven to the Rohingya. However, the sudden increase in boat arrivals in the past weeks has has spurred growing resentment in the Province of Aceh. Earlier this week  a mob of students reportedly stormed the basement of a local community hall in the capital Banda Aceh, where about 137 Rohingya were taking shelter and called for the group to be deported. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, said it was “deeply disturbed” by the incident.

The growing hostility towards the Rohingya has put pressure on President Joko Widodo’s government to take action and on Wednesday Indonesian navy  pushed back a boat carrying Rohingya refugees  approaching the coast of the province. Indonesia has appealed to the international community for help and intensified patrols of its waters, promising to crack down on suspected human traffickers it says are involved in the latest wave of boat arrivals.