As democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi prepares to assume power in Myanmar, two Baptist leaders among the country’s ethnic Kachin refugees are cautiously expecting more freedom to live their Christian faith, perhaps as soon as this Christmas.
More than 100,000 ethnic Kachin, displaced due to civil war that broke out in 2011 in northern Myanmar, have held minimal Christmas celebrations in refugee camps in the years since. Continued fighting between the army and the Kachin Independence Army has prevented the refugees from returning to their villages.
“As Christmas Eve is approaching, we tried to practice songs for carol singing,” said Hka Aung, a senior member of the Kachin Baptist Convention and one of about 3,000 Kachin refugees in a Nant Lim Pa refugee camp. “We can't fully enjoy like we celebrated in our hometown. It is sad that we can't go home and celebrate for Christmas.”
“If we were in our hometown, we can celebrate Christmas better. We can go to worship at churches. We can do more colourful decoration. We can light fireworks during Christmas. But we now have to celebrate it in tiny huts. We are not happy like celebrating in our hometown,” Aung said.
The Kachin Independence Army is one of more than 20 minority ethnic groups agitating for autonomy since Burmese independence in 1948. The military government changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, a change that remains contested among opposition groups. The majority of the Kachin Independence Army’s 10,000 troops are Christian, reflecting the 90 per cent of the ethnic Kachin minority who are Christian.
A 1994 ceasefire agreement between the Kachin militants and the government broke down in 2011. On Christmas Eve 2012, the army launched offensives that forced thousands of civilians on the China-Myanmar border to abandon their homes.
“They fired artillery heavily on Christmas holiday at the time,” said Rev. Lama Yaw, of the Kachin Baptist Convention. “During Christmas holiday, Christians were supposed to enjoy religious activities.” A 2013 report by the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand accused the army of destroying 66 churches and religious buildings in Kachin State.
Yaw said the army launched airstrikes on Kachin rebels last month, forcing at least 200 civilians to seek shelter in nearby churches in Mohnyin township, despite the recent national election victory by the National League for Democracy, led by chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Though Suu Kyi is constitutionally disqualified from serving as president owing to her marriage to a foreigner, she has made plain her intent to direct the new government when the Parliament selects a new president in 2016. She has said she intends to include representatives from ethnic parities in her administration, and to share authority in local regions with ethnic politicians.
Regardless, the Army's chief, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, declared on 7 Dec. that “whichever government is in office and whichever political system is adopted, the main duty of [the army] is the national defence.” The army remains a force in Myanmar politics; the constitution guarantees it 25 per cent of the seats in Parliament.
“We are concerned about the relationship between the new government and the state army,” Aung said.
Nonetheless, he said the displaced Kachin, heartened by the NLD’s election victory, are preparing to celebrate Christmas any way they can. Some are exchanging sweets and patrolling the refugee camp singing carols.
“Our grandparents told us that they missed old Christmas days that they used to celebrated Christmas Eve, decoration at churches with flowers from their garden, Christmas trees full of gifts as well as patrol for carol singing,” Aung said.
He said he expects renewed stability in Kachin State under Suu Kyi’s government will give him a chance to return home next year and celebrate the Christmas holiday in his hometown.
“We hope that we can return home next year as a new government will take over power. But, we don't know for sure how the political situation will be leading. So, I also don't expect very much. And war is still going on,” said Hka Aung.
In the meantime, Aung said he recently approached leaders of the Kachin rebels and the army unit stationed near his hometown to allow villagers to revisit a local abandoned church, cut the grass around the building, and hold Christmas worship service. The Kachin Independence Army approved the request; the army did not.
“Before, they were based about one mile away from Nant Lim Pa village,” Aung said. “But, now we have heard they have stayed and positioned their troops throughout the village, including in and around the church.”
Hka Aung said he and all refugees in Nant Lim Pa camp said they miss celebrating Christmas with their church families.
“I miss the old days that we travelled from one village to another for carol singing. We had livestock and raised many cattle, pigs, and chickens in our villages. We cooked good meat curries and brought it to church and delivered it for free. We exchanged curries,” he said.
The livestock have since been lost. “We can't offer that much,” Aung said. “We just bought snacks, sweets and exchanged to one another. I miss those good days very much. We really enjoyed it and were full of happiness. We pray to God to be able to return home.”