Lashio bishop speaks about his diocese, wounded by war and drugs
Mgr Philip Za Hawng describes the tragic situation in the northern region of Shan State, where fighting rages between the government army and rebel forces. Civilians have fled to China to escape the fighting. In the meantime, illiteracy and the drug trade grow. The prelate offers a proposal for lasting peace.
Lashio (AsiaNews) – 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 economic route.
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 border.
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 reconstruction.
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 stolen.
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