Demonstrators protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, on Feb. 22 in defiance of the military, who have warned of further “loss of life” if people answered a call for a general strike opposing its Feb. 1 coup. CNS photo/Reuters

Toronto Catholic activist fears for her family caught in Myanmar military coup

  • February 25, 2021

As a general strike swept across Myanmar — three weeks after a Feb. 1 military coup prevented a new, elected government from taking office — a Toronto-based Kachin Catholic activist found herself praying for the safety of her family at home in the Southeast Asian country. 

The activist can’t allow her name or photograph to be used in the media because she knows her family in Kachin State will pay the price.

“Everything I do under my name or picture, they (Myanmar’s military) might capture and then start giving trouble to my family,” she told The Catholic Register.

But that doesn’t mean her two young nieces, 20 and 25, are safe. They’ve been supplying protesters in the Kachin capital of Myitkina with food and bottled water. The nieces told their aunt in Canada the military began emptying the jails of hardened criminals as early as December, then as protests grew set the convicts on the Christian neighbourhoods of Myitkina.

The military “spread these prisoners to set up fires and throw rocks and stones at houses at midnight, and then arresting people at night in the neighbourhood,” she said. “What happened was that at night we were talking with my nieces on the Internet. My nieces told me they were so scared, that the prisoners started throwing stones onto their houses. Then the Internet was cut off suddenly by 1 a.m.”

This follows a pattern established early in the protests against the coup. Nightly shutdowns of the Internet and phone lines are immediately followed by police and military raids to arrest protest leaders.

“I wasn’t able to sleep the whole night after I wasn’t able to hear anything from them (the nieces). I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ ” she said.

While the majority Bamar (ethnically Burmese) and Buddhist population in the capital of Yangon have focused their protests on demands to release former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi — whose party won last November’s election — the minority Kachin Christians are more focused on the restoration of democracy. While the Kachin and other minorities feel Suu Kyi has not done enough to protect or promote Myanmar’s minorities, their opposition to the imprisoned politician takes a back seat while the military is solidifying its control.

“All the Christians in Myanmar right now are protesting with the Burmese people, those who are mostly Buddhist,” she said. “Everybody is united. All the public has to reject the military immediately. … The Kachin people support democracy. Maybe 80 per cent of the Kachin don’t support Aung San Suu Kyi, but of course we want democracy.”

The Catholic news service reports that on Feb. 21 Mytkinya protesters held a commemoration for protesters killed in Mandalay.

“Many Christians, including priests and nuns, also demonstrated in Yangon, where at least 1,000 faithful attended; in Mandalay, in Taunggu, Loikaw, Kengtung,” AsiaNews reported.

Pope Francis has spoken of his solidarity with Myanmar’s people during the crisis and urged leaders to “serve the common good.” 

Caritas Internationalis issued a call for the UN Human Rights Council to monitor the situation and for “all parties to secure unhindered and safe humanitarian access to deliver life-saving assistance, resume pandemic response.”

Caritas has worked in Myanmar for 30 years, fighting a severe AIDS crisis, delivering education and aiding minorities stuck in internally displaced persons camps by fighting between local militias and the Myanmar army.

The military has promised a one-year state of emergency followed by electoral system reforms and fresh elections. Knowing Myanmar’s history of military rule, the Toronto-based Kachin activist doesn’t believe the military’s promises.

“Once they hold power in the country, it’s going to be 10 or 20 years. It’s going to happen. So we have to fight until we get back our democratic system again,” she said.

Living in Canada and seeing Canadian provinces with the power to set their own official language, their own cultural policies, their own education and health systems, has taught the Kachin Catholic activist there can be democratic systems that don’t become a tyranny of the majority.

“We would welcome this kind of situation (Canadian provincial powers) — this kind of system, if it could happen in my country,” she said. “But it’s impossible right now because our minority is very less population. It’s impossible against this giant Burmese military.”

She’s grateful Canada and other democracies have spoken out against the coup in Myanmar, but knows the new military junta cares nothing for international opinion.

“Strong condemning statements don’t matter to them at all. What we need is action.”

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