It is a cry that echoes that of Jeremiah 31:15, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel, weeping for her children.” This was the plaintive question asked by one of the Presbyterian Church of Myanmar (PCM) female leaders in response to the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in her community in Tahan, Myanmar.
PCM leaders are enabled to update its ecumenical partners on the evolving situation in Myanmar via Zoom meetings and a WhatsApp messaging group, which also helps facilitate a collaborative response from the partners who provide support as they are able.
The civilian population of Myanmar has been suffering since the military coup on February 1, 2021, and a recent upsurge in violence has seen an increase in attacks on villages creating crisis conditions for thousands of people.
Much of the membership of the PCM is based in and around the twin cities of Tahan and Kalaymyo in the Sagaing region, bordering the Chin State. The PCM General Assembly Office and Tahan Theological College (TTC) are located in Tahan, as well as several synod offices (the PCM is comprised of ten ethnically based synods).
In late March, villages around Tahan were attacked by airstrikes from the Myanmar Air Force. The junta’s ruling body the State Administration Council (SAC) appears to have adopted a more ruthless approach to the resistance they are facing from ethnic militia and Peoples Defence Forces (PDF’s). The SAC label them as terrorists and use this as justification for their actions. The militia and PDF’s are active in the Sagaing region and Chin State and so the military has been targeting these areas. They ruthlessly attack and burn villages in their efforts to suppress opposition. Unknown numbers of civilians have been killed as a result of their attacks, but the BBC reported that on April 11 an air strike on Pa Zi Gyi village in Sagaing killed at least 168 people including many women and children. A few weeks before that, an air strike on a village in the Chin State killed several civilians.
This latest round of attacks has destroyed many villages and created thousands of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) who have had to seek shelter elsewhere. Of course, the suffering is greatest among women, children and the elderly. Since March thousands of IDP’s have descended on Tahan in need of food and shelter. Some of these internal refugees were transported on trucks, others have fled their villages on foot, walking for hours not knowing where they could find safety. The PCM was one of several churches that responded to this humanitarian crisis. TTC opened its doors and sheltered and fed hundreds of IDP’s and others were accommodated in PCM churches in Tahan.
At the height of the Covid crisis, the PCM established a Covid Response Fund and as the country’s situation worsened after the coup, the fund was widened to include crisis support for IDP’s. Despite their prior experience, the scale and intensity of this crisis was much greater.
TTC staff, students and PCM members worked hard to ensure the IDP’s were fed and cared for and even provided extra care in the form of offering haircuts to help with personal grooming and restoring some dignity.
The IDP’s who had taken shelter at TTC were able to return to their villages on April 11th. However, at the time of writing hundreds of other IDP’s remain in Tahan being cared for by various churches. PCM’s new General Secretary Rev. Pek Muan Cuang said that the PCM is harbouring 150 IDP’s at Tahan Venglai, with others also at Vengchhak and Vengthlang churches. No one knows how long this situation will last or what might happen next.
The situation in Tahan is still volatile and of great concern. Outgoing PCM General Secretary Rev. Ramthanga said that on the night of April 17, SAC forces unleashed a barrage of artillery shells on Tahan. Many houses were hit and a 37-year-old female patient at Wesley Methodist Clinic is reported to have died of a heart attack as a result of hearing the explosions. Rev. Ramthanga also said that on the morning of April 19th the SAC destroyed a civilian’s house in Taungphilar village south of Tahan using JCB earthmoving machinery.
Ecumenical partners will maintain regular contact with the Presbyterian Church of Myanmar leadership to monitor the situation. In the meantime, the PCM leaders and members will continue to serve those in need in their community and region as they endure ongoing hardship and uncertainty. Their faith in God is strong and they are convinced of the justice of their cause as they pray for a return to democracy in their troubled country. It must be hoped that resistance from within and diplomatic efforts from the international community will combine to eventually bring democracy, peace and stability back to Myanmar.
Article by Rev. Phil King, Global Mission Director, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ)
CWM organised a PCM Partners’ Roundtable event in Singapore on 2-3 August 2022, for PCM’s global network of churches and ecumenical partners to strategise their solidarity efforts for PCM and receive updates of its ministry efforts amidst the situation in Myanmar. Responding to God’s calling to be life-flourishing communities, CWM also organised and facilitated a working group meeting to discuss PCM’s Agape Hospital Relocation Project on 13 December 2022. The subsequent meeting gathered PCM’s partner churches and ecumenical organisations to discuss their respective areas of collaboration and contribution.
Banner image caption: A Baptist Church in the Tahan region desecrated by SAC forces