NAYPYIDAW, Burma (Morning Star News) – Burmese army jet fighters killed 21 civilians from the predominantly Christian, ethnic Chin group in airstrikes this month in western Burma (Myanmar), sources said.
In Paletwa Township, Chin state, the army on March 14 struck Meiksa Wa villages 2 and 3, killing 12 civilians, area residents reportedly said. Eight more died in attacks the next day on Wetma village, and one was killed in Pyaing Tain village, they said.
The Burmese military’s Members of Parliament said the predominantly Christian villages were targeted because army personnel believed Arakan Army (AA) rebels from Rakhine state, on Chin state’s southern border, had taken cover in them, according to Mai Thin Yu Mon, program director of Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).
Another 28 civilians were wounded in the attacks, he said, adding that more than 1,500 villagers fled the areas as some of their houses were burned down.
Chin Christian leaders and local residents said that, based on past persecution they have endured at the hands of the military, they suspect army personnel fired indiscriminately at the villages in part because the inhabitants were Christian. Under the previous military regime, troops came to their villages and systematically persecuted the Christians in order to impose Buddhism. Prior CHRO reports have outlined how Burmese troops destroyed church buildings and persecuted Christians.
Brig. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesman, reportedly said that government troops were returning fire at AA rebels, and that it was unclear which side caused the civilian casualties.
“We used fighter jets and helicopters in military operations, but it is difficult to tell [if the fatalities] were caused by the jets,” he told The Irawaddy. “When we use the jets, we take more care and aim only at the enemy’s location.”
Encouraging Buddhism to try to unite Burma’s disparate peoples, the Burmese government has long persecuted Chin Christians for their faith. Many ethnic Chin retain their ancestral animist beliefs and practices, though today most are Christians, according to the Joshua Project and other sources.
Amid fighting in Chin state’s Paletwa area and in Rakhine state, unarmed ethnic Chin are targeted by both sides. The Rakhine people are predominantly Buddhist. CHRO’s Mai Thin Yu Mon said AA soldiers also attack civilians when they suspect Burmese army soldiers have taken cover in their buildings.
“Sometimes, the AA’s soldiers said that they were informed that the government soldiers stay in the villages, so they opened fire into the villages,” he said. “So villagers got injured because of those indiscriminate attacks.”
Though religious buildings and properties are commonly seen as safe places in Burma during armed fighting, local residents said that both Rakhine rebel and government troops take over Christian churches to use as shelter and cover during offensives.
CHRO condemned the Burmese military for indiscriminate attacks against ethnic Chin, Christian villages in a press statement. The rights group added that both government forces and Rakhine rebels commit abuses such as demanding money from the Chin, arresting those who cannot pay and using them as human shields in battle.
AA rebels recently kidnapped three Chin villagers who were not able to meet their demands for rice bags, Mai Thin Yu Mon said.
“The villagers were released after three days of detention,” he said. “But they were ordered to provide 20 bags of rice. The rebels have been extorting money and foods from Chin villagers since 2015.”
There are more than 2,600 Chin villagers taking shelter in the Samee Internally Displaced Persons camp in Chin state, including 20 pregnant women, he said. An estimated 90 percent of the IDPs are Christians.
“IDPs in the Samee camp also urgently need food, clothes, blankets and medicines,” May Thin Yu Mon said. “We are collecting donations for them. Some individuals who are ethnic Chin singers also donated some money.”
The Rev. Dennis Ngun Thawng Mang of the Chin Baptist Convention said he had received word of the attacks on the ethnic Chin, Christian communities.
“We are preparing to provide some financial assistance,” he said. “We are also trying to meet Burmese army officials. We will ask them not to harm our Chin Christian communities. We will ask them to protect our Chin Christian communities.”
Burma is about 80 percent Buddhist and 9 percent Christian. The country is ranked 19th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.