At least five Christian clergymen have been killed and four others are in detention in Myanmar since the military seized power in a coup, highlighting how the junta has targeted leaders of the religion over the past 10 months.
Salai Za Op Lin, deputy executive director of the Chin Human Rights Group, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that most of the victims were from the Chin state townships of Kanpetlet, Mindat, Matupi and Thantlang.
“Our records show there are nine Christian leaders, including pastors, who suffered at the hands of the junta. Five of the nine were killed,” he said.
“Similar things are happening to those in Magway region outside of Chin state.”
Um Kee, a 30-year-old pastor from Kanpetlet’s Otpo village, was arrested from his home on Dec. 11. Two days later, locals found his dead body near the Pan Laybyay Hotel.
A resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that Um Kee had been stabbed in the abdomen and shot in the head.
“He was said to be taken away for questioning. We knew he was arrested. His body was found on the side of the road the next day,” the resident said.
“His abdomen was sliced open with knife wounds, and he had a big wound on his head.”
Salai Ngwe Kyar, a Christian pastor from Thekkedaung village, in Magway’s Saetottara township, was arrested on allegations that he belonged to the anti-junta People’s Defense Force (PDF) militia on Dec. 6 by soldiers from the local No. 20 Regiment. Locals said he died at Magway Hospital on Dec. 9 from injuries sustained during interrogation.
The military also arrested Naing Kone, a pastor from Ngalai village in Matupi township on Sept. 23. It was not until Nov. 17 that his family was informed of his death, according to residents.
Kyon Byat Hom, a clergyman who went to help put out a fire at a home in Thantlang following clashes between the military and fighters with the Chin Defense Force (CDF) militia, was shot to death on Sept. 19.
Speaking to RFA, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun denied that any pastors had died during interrogation, adding that reports about a Chin Christian leader having been killed by the military were false and that he had been “killed in the crossfire” between government troops and the CDF.
“One day there was a shootout. A Christian leader came out to the scene of the shooting and was killed. We don’t know whose bullets caused his death. He was buried,” he said.
“Later there was talk that his ring was cut off from his fingers at the burial site. We can prove we didn’t do such a thing. The burial was performed by members of the church. These kinds of allegations will always be there. We want to be friends with all religions.”
‘Unacceptable’ acts against religion
Myanmar was thrown into political crisis on Feb. 1 when the military seized power from the country’s democratically elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government in a coup. Since then, the military has killed at least 1,377 civilians and arrested nearly 8,300 others, mostly during widespread peaceful protests of the junta. The military has also launched offensives against several armed ethnic groups and prodemocracy militias in the country’s remote border regions.
In Chin state, where the military is fighting the CDF, government troops have set up camp in Chin Christian churches and in some cases destroyed religious buildings with heavy artillery or arson, according to residents. The Chin Human Rights Group estimates that more than 30 churches have been destroyed in Chin state in the nearly 11 months since the coup.
Venerable Ngun Htaung Man, the head of the Chin Baptist Association, called it “unacceptable” that religious leaders have been killed and sacred sites destroyed on the junta’s watch.
“These things should never have happened. It insults religion and creates racial problems,” he said, noting that Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s Christian population tend to be ethnic minorities.
“Religions must be mutually recognized and respected. It is our view that rules and regulations of international law must be observed.”
Refugee aid dwindles
Meanwhile, members of a group of nearly 250 refugees who fled fighting in Chin state’s Paletwa township told RFA that they are now facing difficulties, including a shortage of food, as donations have dried up since the February coup.
The refugees, who are mostly ethnic Khumi and Mro, relocated to Yangon region’s Hmawbi township after escaping clashes between the ethnic Rakhine Arakan Army (AA) and the military in December 2020. After living in makeshift tents in the Myaung Tagar area’s Baytha La village and relying on charity for more than a year, the group is now struggling to survive, they said.
“We are not familiar with the land and environment of this region, so we are not able to grow anything here,” said Kan Htun, a refugee who fled his home in Paletwa’s Kyi Lay village with his family to Yangon’s Hmawbi township.
“We don’t have jobs. We also don’t know how to commute to the downtown area so we can’t go out and look for jobs. We just sit in our makeshift tents and now we are having problems making ends meet.”
In addition to a food shortage, the refugees in Baytha La village are also struggling with other challenges such as an inability to obtain proper documentation in Hmawbi township because they had to flee without identification cards when they left Chin state.
Donors feel unsafe
Nant Vit, a refugee who fled Paletwa, said that since the coup very few donors had come forward to aid her community. She said the nearby Khumi Emmanuel Church is currently making donations but is already stretched thin.
“It has been five months. We are facing hardships surviving every day,” she said.
“We are living on food provisions from the church, but I am not sure what will happen in future. I don’t have any income or job.”
Kan Lott, the church’s pastor, told RFA he had been gathering food for the refugees from donors in the Yangon region but said that since the coup, people no longer feel safe traveling to the area.
“Previously, donors arrived in large trucks carrying rice, cooking oil and other commodities for the refugees,” he said.
“The rice bags were big. Now, the rice bags they donate are small if they even come at all.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.