Catholic Sisters in Myanmar raise their voices against nation’s military oppressors

The world began paying attention to Myanmar (formerly Burma) last October when the nation’s Buddhist majority began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. The world watched in horror as the military junta overthrew the Myanmar government and began systematically killing people.

In an article she wrote for Global Sisters Report, Jane Nway Nway Ei, RGS, penned the words, “Suddenly my heart was beating loud, my eyes were searching for an accurate news source, my mind was working hard, repeating, ‘This is not true!’”

But it was true. At 9 a.m. on February 1, 2021, national television news reports confirmed that the democratically elected government of Myanmar had succumbed to an illegal military coup. Today, communities increasingly are taking up arms to protect themselves against the relentless campaign of military violence.

Myanmar’s democracy continues its steady decline into a dictatorship with human rights violations and migrant camps springing up all across the country. Many people now live in extreme poverty. Others attempt, and often fail, to escape through boat crossings in risky waters and at dangerous land borders.

Tensions throughout Myanmar’s history

Myanmar has been wrought with political tension for centuries since the Mongols under Kublai Khan conquered the land in 1287. The British colonized the area in the 1800s and the Japanese invaded it in World War II. The Burmese military took over in 1962, creating one of the most repressive regimes in the world. For 26 years, the people of Myanmar were isolated from the rest of the world.

In 1975, ethnic tensions combined with rebellion against the military government to create regional minority insurgents. According to the BBC, the government declared in 1982 that anyone not indigenous to Myanmar was an “associate citizen,” stripping them of rights.

In 1988 the people elected a democratic party to lead them, but the new leaders and supporters were arrested and thousands of them brutally killed. The mass killing of civilians forced the people to accept military dictatorship for 23 more years.

Ethnic and religious tensions between Myanmar’s minority groups and its Buddhist majority continued over the years. In 2017, refugees recounted tales of military beheadings, torture, rape, and burning villages to the ground. Newspapers reported that much of the violence was “flamboyantly brutal, intimate and personal — the kind that is detonated by a long, bitter history of ethnic hatred.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, described the government operations as “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing.”

Despite international condemnation, the military campaign grew and Buddhist nationalism surged.

Myanmar’s persecution of the Rohingya

Myanmar’s population is made up of many different ethnicities and cultures. The Rohingya is of greatest consequence. The stateless ethnic group has been seeking refuge in Myanmar and neighboring Asia ever since Bangladesh expelled them 25 years ago.

The Rohingya were once welcomed in Myanmar as economic migrants and even citizens. But they are now outcasts because many people fear they will eventually outnumber those who can pass for Burmese ethnicity. It is estimated that there are fewer than one million Rohingya left today.

Love of God in Myanmar

As the country churns in political turmoil and poverty and refugee camps become widespread, international aid organizations are providing immunizations and clean water to prevent disease. Catholic religious Sisters are increasing their charitable and humanitarian services.

“Hunger is not only the problem our people face: they are afraid, they are traumatized, their spirit is broken by street violence,” said Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon during a recent homily.

For Good Shepherd Sister Jane Nway Nway Ei, the 2021 military coup is like a bad dream. She said,

“I still do not want to believe it is true. But this time I am not afraid to raise my voice. The day I was writing this — March 4 — was the second day in Yangon and Mandalay that the military air force was throwing tear gas and bombs into the crowds and nearby houses. Snipers shot protesters in the head and chest, and volunteer health workers were arrested and tortured for supporting the people. These tactics are not merely cracking down on protests; they are deliberate killings — crimes against humanity. Throughout Myanmar, people are strongly condemning the killing and torture, calling for an end to all brutality. I long for a mighty power to make this all disappear.

The people do not have any weapons and neither do we. But we do have power. We have hope and we have a way to reach toward freedom, peace, and justice through God. I firmly believe that freedom will prevail in Myanmar! Justice will prevail in Myanmar!”

The Sisters in Myanmar ask us to accompany them in prayer for the restoration of peace and unity and to restore democracy in the nation.

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette McDermott

Jeanette is the Communications Coordinator for Sisters of the Good Shepherd Province of Mid-North America. She is a career photojournalist who has served in various capacities of print, broadcast, and corporate communications. Jeanette is devoted to creation and is particularly focused on saving pollinators and other wildlife species and their habitat. She is an ethical vegan and created the website veganstoryteller.com