There is a war on in Myanmar and its civilian casualties are regarded by both the warring factions as collateral damage.
The army’s increased reliance on artillery and air power serves as a collective punishment for ethnic communities, including Christians, who are believed to be opponents of the army’s rule and sympathizers of its enemies.
The indiscriminate use of artillery and air power is going to make the proposed elections in August a bloody affair in the Southeast nation.
The military toppled the civil government of Nobel Peace winner Aung San Suu Kyi on Feb. 1, 2021, alleging widespread voter fraud in Myanmar’s 2020 general polls, a claim refuted by independent agencies.
The military is planning to hold elections in August this year to hand over power to the winning party as curtains fall on its two-year state of emergency on Feb. 1 this year.
The military regime has already set the ball rolling for elections by conducting a population census across the country to compile voters’ lists.
Less than four weeks into 2023, political and humanitarian upheaval in the country has produced a fragile and precarious situation to take the Myanmar quagmire into a new phase, which will become more intense ahead of the polls as resistance groups have upped the ante against the army.
Christians make up nearly 6 percent of Myanmar’s population of 54 million. Buddhism is the state religion with 89 percent of the population following it.
Five out of 16 dioceses in the country -- Loikaw, Pekhon, Hakha, Kalay and Mandalay -- are hit by the ongoing standoff between the army and ethnic rebel groups, whose members also hail from various Christian denominations.
The army is in no mood to relent and show mercy to ethnic Christians for their support of rebel groups. This year several churches, institutions, and convents across the country have been bombed and torched in Christian-majority regions of Kachin, Kayah, Karen and Chin states and central Myanmar’s Bamar heartland.
In the second week of this month, a mother and her two-year-old daughter were killed when two churches in Karen State came under airstrikes by the military.
On Jan. 15, a 129-year-old Catholic Assumption church under the archdiocese of Mandalay was set ablaze in the Sagaing region along with many villagers' homes.
The army arrived in the conflict-torn Sagaing northeast region on Jan. 14 evening and set many houses on fire. More than 500 houses were destroyed in the fourth raid on the village in eight months.
The troops then stayed in the church overnight before setting it ablaze in the wee hours of Jan. 15 (Sunday), when Catholics were expected to arrive for worship.
The attack on Jan. 15 also gutted a century-old convent of the Franciscan Sisters.
Pope Francis has repeatedly called for peace in Myanmar, and decried the destruction of the Assumption church.
“My thoughts, with pain, go in particular to Myanmar, where the church of Our Lady of the Assumption in the village of Chan Thar, one of the oldest and most important places of worship in the country, was set on fire and destroyed,” the supreme pontiff said during the Angelus on Jan.22.
The Church in Myanmar has urged the military rulers to protect places of worship in a letter, signed by Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, and Archbishops Marco Tin Win of Mandalay and Basilio Athai of Taunggyi.
“Increasingly, places of worship and monasteries, where communities seek peace and reconciliation, are themselves under attack,” they observed in the open letter, released on Jan 20.
The letter, however, did not name the military junta for the recent attacks on Christian-majority areas.
Though the US, UK , European Union, and Canada have sanctioned Myanmar’s many conglomerates, owned and operated by the ruling military, it is business as usual in the strife-torn nation.
The US sanctions cover coup leaders, their families and military-linked companies over atrocities against civilians, including ethnic minority Christians. The US also named military-ruled Myanmar among 12 countries that are of “particular concern” for religious freedom violations in December last year.
The US Congress, on Dec. 5, passed a law known broadly as the 2022 Burma Act, which allows the Biden administration to provide technical support and non-military aid to rebel groups who are waging a war against the State Administration Council (SAC), the official name of the military junta.
The Bill promises increased support for the National Unity Government (NUG), ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), the People’s Defense Force (PDF), and the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), set up by ousted legislators.
The US support will further boost the morale of ethnic groups and will pave for more attacks and assaults ahead of the crucial polls.
Indonesia, the world’s third-largest democracy and largest Muslim nation which acts as the new chair of the ASEAN, also wants to contribute to democratization in Myanmar.
Asia’s largest trade block has unveiled a five-point agenda -- the ASEAN 5-Point Consensus (5PC) -- which covers inclusive political dialogue. However, all the stakeholders are not in a mood to come to the negotiation table as they are thinking they can win this bloody war.
If the US and western nations are showing sympathy towards rebel groups, Japan, Asia’s third largest economy, prefers to swear by the army.
Human Rights Watch said on Jan. 23 that Japanese firm Yokogawa Bridge Corp. transferred more than $1 million in 2022 to Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), which is owned by the abusive army.
The Japanese government should suspend all ongoing non-humanitarian aid benefitting Myanmar’s junta, the human rights organization has said.
The fund is meant for the Bago River Bridge Construction Project, approved in 2016 as part of Japan’s assistance to Myanmar, which includes a $240 million loan from Japan’s aid agency, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
Thailand, which shares a common border of 2,401 km with Myanmar, is playing safe. It wants all the key players in the conflict to hold dialogue. But given the current hostile situation, this has not materialized.
Asia’s emerging superpowers – China and India – have also preferred to do business with the military.
The United Nations Security Council (SC) passed a resolution on Myanmar on Dec. 21 last year. Twelve members of the Council voted in support of the British-sponsored resolution, while Russia, China, and India abstained.
Currently, the military junta is sitting pretty with India on its side, with China not an enemy and Russia as a strong backer.
Without any prior consultation among the warring factions, the elections in Myanmar are going to a sham and the plight of ethnic Christians will not come to an end with the polls.