Fr William Htoo on Myanmar that resists one year on from coup
More than 400,000 people have been displaced. Children have not been to school for two years. The fighting is no longer limited to certain regions, but is everywhere. The testimony of a priest from the diocese of Taungoo to AsiaNews on the Church's assistance activities: "Loikaw is a ghost town, people are running away without being able to take anything. We try to help, but it is increasingly complicated".
Yangon (AsiaNews) - A year has passed since the coup d'état that shook Myanmar. On February 1, 2021, the Burmese military junta ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi and took control of the country. The civil disobedience movement, which was harshly repressed by the regime, has been joined by ethnic militias: some, after remaining silent for years, have taken up arms again and today the fighting is no longer limited to certain regions, but "is everywhere".
This is the scenario described to AsiaNews by Fr William Htoo, secretary of the diocese of Taungoo, in one of the regions hardest hit by the conflict. "Many young people who were going to university and dreaming of brilliant careers have seen their future vanish from one moment to the next," explains Fr Htoo. "The children no longer go to school, they have been at home for two years," he continues. "Young men and women have joined the militias to fight against the army. There are hundreds of thousands of displaced people throughout the country."
The resistance shows no sign of surrendering. A silent strike was planned for today in protest against the generals: people are locking themselves in their homes, not going to work, the streets of the larger cities are empty. The civil disobedience movement has disappeared from the news, but it is still active and opposes the soldiers in the same way as militia guerrillas fight in the forests.
Just before Christmas, the military bombed Loikaw for the umpteenth time. Located inKayah State it is home to most of Myanmar's Christians. Sources on the ground tell us that the city has now emptied, it simply no longer exists.
The latest figures from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, speak of at least 406,000 internal refugees. The most significant increase was recorded in December 2021 due to the clashes in the south-east of the country: in Kayah, Kayin, Shan and Mon States there are almost 220,000 people defined as "internally displaced" by the UN. Another 32,000 have fled to India or Thailand in the last year.
Fr Htoo confirms: "Many are preparing to go abroad, trying to leave the country and find a job outside because there is less and less work and more and more poverty here.
"There is a lack of food and medical care," he continues. "A large number of health personnel have left State hospitals because they do not want to work with the army, but private hospitals are too expensive. The local Church is in the front line in providing assistance, but it cannot meet all the needs. Thefts and robberies are increasing because people are dissatisfied and living is more and more difficult. The Church is trying to show a way, but it is getting more and more complicated."
Anyone who needs help is welcomed in the diocese. At least 10,000 people have passed through Taungoo in recent months.
"People run away without taking anything, they only think of their own safety. If there are no soldiers on the streets, some people will travel three or four times to try to get something back. Local nuns and priests buy food and phone cards and visit the villages "if only to give some moral support to the population".
In this context, the pandemic is the least of the worries: "Before the coup d'état, there was great apprehension, but then the pandemic took a back seat".
Fr Htoo laughs as he recounts this, making us realise that the people of Myanmar do not have the luxury of stopping fighting against the military junta to deal with a health crisis. The will to resist the regime is stronger: "All the families have been infected, even many nuns and priests have had it. There is no possibility of doing swabs. In the villages where you eat a lot of chilli peppers you realise you've been infected when you can no longer smell or taste it.
Despite all the despair he has seen over the past year, Fr Htoo still smiles. Because in Myanmar, our sources explain, even though anarchy and total chaos may reign, the country is held together by the people's spirit of solidarity.
A year has passed since the coup. How long will this civil war go on?
"Simplifying as much as possible, we can say that there are two groups, the civilians and the military. Both want to control the country, but neither wants to give in and surrender. Negotiations are inconceivable at this time," says the priest. "Everyone is praying for peace and for this political crisis to be resolved, but it will take time to rebuild the country and above all the spirit of the people".