Mother and child in a camp for displaced persons at Kutkai in Lashio
This article appeared in the 31 August 2014 edition of Sunday Examiner, the English-language weekly of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong and is used with permission. The dioceses of Myitkyina ["MITCHinah"] and Banmaw cover the Kachin State, where Columbans first went to work in 1936. Bishop Zahawang of Lashio, in the neighbouring Shan State, was formerly Auxiliary Bishop of Myitkyina.
HONG KONG (SE): “This incremental genocide of a generation has not attracted the needed attention of concerned people, raising doubts whether there is a deliberate attempt to destroy the youth of our lands,” the bishops of three dioceses in the Union of Myanmar say in a statement issued on August 20. [Full statement here.]
Bishop Francis Daw Tang, from Myitkyina; Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam from Banmaw; and Bishop Philip Zahawng, from Lashio; say in their statement, “The prevalence of human trafficking and drug trafficking is an undeclared war on our people.”
The bishops are pointing out that a silent war has been raging in their dioceses for over three years, since a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmese Army broke down and hostilities resumed in 2011.
“We have seen the hundreds of innocent people killed and buried in unknown graves, thousands displaced to inhuman camps, destroying their dignity and raising serious questions about their future,” the bishops continue, calling the interludes of peace nothing but an illusion bringing frustrating disappointment.
A former drug educator with Caritas in Myitkyina, Peter Nlam Hkun Aung, told the Sunday Examiner in 2011 that he believes that drugs are one form of artillery being used by the Myanmese Military against the Kachin people.
“Soldiers offer cigarettes and candy laced with drugs to primary school children,” he said. “The children do not know what they are, they just take them. This is part of the war being waged by the military, they just want to turn our people into a mob of zombies.”
Apart from the drug war, the bishops believe that human trafficking is another weapon used to break up the cohesion of the social structure of the Kachin as a people.
“Poor and innocent Kachin women are commoditised by human traffickers and hundreds are forced into modern day slavery and sold across borders,” the three bishops say, adding, “War has wiped out the livelihoods of our people, forcing our young men to seek risky livelihoods.”
Father Cirineo "Dodong" Matulac witnessed the wholesale rape of the Kachin economy during a visit to the city of Muse, just across the porous border from the Chinese city of Ruili in Yunnan province. [Editor's note: Fr Matulac is a Filipino Columban priest who worked in China before and is now based in Quezon City, Philippines.]
“Thousands of people and hundreds of trucks cross the border every day to trade,” he explained. “Hardwood like teak, precious gemstones like jade and rubies come from the Myanmar side of the border in exchange for cheap and non-durable manufactured goods from China.”
He also visited a camp for displaced people in nearby Manhkan, near the border with the Shan State and the controversial Dapein Hydroelectric Power Plant.
When the government began an expansion of the power plant in 2011 the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intervened and the government moved against them, bringing an end to the fragile peace that had survived for some 17 years.
Father Matulac said that in the camp he met 56-year-old Hpadau Brang Mai, who talked freely with him as he remembered Father Matulac’s fellow Columban priests who were in the area when he was young.
“He is only one of hundreds of people in the displaced persons’ camp,” Father Matulac explained. “He has five children, but his 23-year-old son was killed by the military when he was working in the field on their farm.”
Brang said that he and his family fled, as they were afraid of the military as they shoot at the people indiscriminately.
Brang has been in the camp for two years and wants to go home, but the war situation prevents him.
Father Matulac said that Brang introduced him to a woman who told him, “There are many families here in this camp who have lost their sons and daughters to the army,’ and Brang added, ‘We don’t know the reason why they shoot us. I think they want to kill us because we are Kachin’.”
Kachin traditional dress [Wikipedia]
Father Peter Maran Tawng, from Caritas Myanmar, says that all up there are over 100,000 people living in displaced persons’ camps, but nobody knows the real number of people driven from their homes, as many parts of the country are inaccessible.
Father Maran said that the mega projects of the Chinese are certainly one reason for the tension with the government. He cited the partially completed Myitsone Hydro-Electric Dam, construction of which is currently on hold, but the people are upset because over 90 per cent of the power generated will go to China.
Gas pipelines into China and a railway line from Yangon to Kunming are also on the planning board and, Father Maran commented, “It seems that the Myanmar government has launched a campaign to slowly wipe out any opposition to these projects.”
Pagoda in Banmaw [Wikipedia]
Father Matulac added that on a visit to the pristine mountain resort of the Stone Village with seminarians, he was told that in November 2011 the army sent troops there and hundreds of local people died.
“The seminarians told me that some of these young soldiers are taken by force and enlisted in the army and sent to the Kachin state to fight,” Father Matulac said, adding that international agencies estimate that there are as many as 70,000 child soldiers used by the Burmese army and ethnic freedom fighters.
He added that records show a systematic recruitment and even trafficking of children as soldiers by the Myanmese military.
He explained that the seminarians told him, “The young soldiers are only trained to shoot. They fire at anyone, if they see a Kachin man, they think that he is KIA. The soldiers strafe the houses and rape the women, even pregnant women.”
Father Matulac added, “A young man named Columban told me his friend was also killed by the army. He was riding his motorcycle when he happened to pass by a troop of Burmese soldiers and he was shot in the head. Another young man said that his house was strafed by the soldiers. All of them had a similar story.”
Rural scene, Banmaw [Wikipedia]
The three bishops believe that the rape of natural resources is the reason behind the genocide. “Colonial era laws are enacted to usurp traditional ethnic lands,” they say. “Land questions may ultimately decide the future of peace in this land.”
They add, “We note with great concern attempts to grab the lands of those who are displaced.”
They insist that peace based on justice is the only way forward, but Father Matulac says that a new military vision will be necessary to achieve this.
He points to a sign posted on the military headquarters in Mandalay, which reads, “Tatmadaw (military) and the people cooperate and thrash all those who are harming the union.”
The Filipino missionary says that the operative word is union, as ethnic groups like the Kachin are not regarded as being an integral part of it.
“The silent war in the Kachin villages rages on, while the ordinary people are caught in between,” he concludes.
One of a number of songs celebrating in 2011 the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Columbans in Banmaw (Bhamo) and the 50th anniversary of the building of St Patrick's, now the cathedral of the Diocese of Banmaw.