Catholic villagers flee as Myanmar military escalates attacks

Thousands of people from a historic Catholic village in conflict-torn Myanmar have been forced to flee their homes as the military ramps up air strikes and artillery shelling.

When people learned about the military raid on a nearby village on July 17, almost all the inhabitants of Monhla village in the central Sagaing region fled into the nearby jungle and other safe areas.

While some villagers used motorcycles and small trucks, others including the elderly and children fled on bullock-drawn carts, according to local sources.

Priests and nuns were among the thousands of people who fled the village.

Sources said three helicopters flew over several villages including Monhla early on July 18.

“We had to hide in the trees as we heard the junta’s air strikes,” says one villager.

The number of casualties and damage to civilian homes in the Catholic village remain unknown.

Villagers in the area have repeatedly fled their homes for fear of being attacked by junta troops in recent months.

The latest attack came six weeks after more than 500 homes in another old Catholic village, Chan Thar, were set ablaze by junta troops on June 7.

At least 320 out of 350 houses were also burned down at Chaung Yoe village during a raid on May 20.

The military regime is specifically targeting three historic Catholic villages in the Buddhist Bamar heartland of Sagaing in a bid to stamp out growing resistance by people’s defense forces.

Monhla, Chaung Yoe and Chan Thar, which are part of Mandalay Archdiocese, are known as Bayingyi villages where the people claim descent from Portuguese adventurers who arrived there in the 16th and 17th centuries. The villages have produced many bishops, priests and religious nuns and brothers.

Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon is a native of Monhla, where Buddhists and Catholics have lived together peacefully for decades.

The junta has stepped-up its offensive in the Sagaing region with artillery shelling, air strikes and the burning of houses in several villages that has led to thousands of people becoming internally displaced. Mobile phones and internet lines are cut off in some townships in the region.

Catholic bishops have repeatedly called for respect for human life and the sanctity of places of worship, hospitals and schools in the conflict-torn Southeast Asian nation.

Cardinal Bo met with coup leader Min Aung Hlaing last December and cut a Christmas cake together, triggering strong criticism from Catholic and other religious communities in the country.

Despite Bo meeting the junta leader, his regime has continued its attacks against civilians while dozens of churches in Kayah and Chin states have been destroyed.

The ongoing conflict, particularly in Christian strongholds like Kayah, Chin, Karen and Kachin states, has resulted in churches and convents being attacked and raided. Priests and pastors have also been killed and arrested.

Nearly 2,100 people including over 100 children have been killed and more than 1,400 detained since last February’s coup.