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Sad 'silent night' for Kachin Christians

Burma | Religion & Conflict

BURMA'S ETHNIC KACHIN COMMUNITY, which is 90 percent Christian, traditionally celebrates Christmas complete with decorations, caroling and church worship. But due to the ongoing armed hostilities in their region of northern Burma, this year’s holiday celebrations will range from low-key to non-existent.

“Last year, we went out caroling with friends on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think anyone is interested in singing carols at this time,” said Shawng San, adding that security concerns will be another factor keeping them off the streets at Christmas.

The Kachin people also normally gather at churches on Christmas Eve to worship, pray and exchange gifts.

“As we are Christians, Christmas Eve is normally the happiest time for us. But this year, it’s a nightmare,” said Mai Li Awng, a former church minister, in a shaky voice before breaking into tears.

“We can’t talk about celebrating Christmas like last year due to security reasons. Even if we wanted to exchange gifts, we couldn’t because now we have to rely on aid, supplies and medicine from supporters and donors.”

Mai Li Awng, who lives in the war-torn area of Maija Yang, said that beginning on Dec. 1, Kachin people traditionally decorate their houses with flowers, balloons, colorful lights and, of course, Christmas trees. This year, however, holiday trimmings are sparse, as due to the fighting many people have lost everything and others have moved their belongings away from home.

The armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese government troops that began in June shows no signs of stopping in the near future. Caught in the crossfire, thousands of Kachin civilians have become war refugees seeking shelter either in camps or in the jungle.

Sum Lut Pan Htoi, a 23-year-old ethnic Kachin woman who lives in a conflict area of Sein Lum, is one of the more than 45,000 Kachin who have become refugees since June.

She said that last year she was very happy because she celebrated Christmas Eve together with her parents. But this year, due to armed hostilities along the route, she can’t travel to Laiza where her parents are staying in a temporary shelter.

“I first thought to make a pair of hand-made clothes for my parents and celebrate Christmas Eve together with them. But now I can’t do either,” Sum Lut Pan Htoi said.

Hkaw Lwi, a volunteer relief worker with a local Kachin group called Wun Tawng Ningtwey (Light for the Kachin People), said that the displaced Kachin are suffering from food shortages and disease as Christmas approaches.

To make matters worse, Kachin State in December is one of the coldest places in Burma, with snowfall and iced-over mountains. Hkaw said that at Maija Yang, temporary home to about 1,000 refugees, a woman and her newborn baby both died after the delivery due to heart failure and hypothermia.

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, a Burmese government body, reported that there are 59 temporary camps in 11 townships where 14,113 people are cared for by the local authorities. There are 51 schools in 10 townships with a student population of 7,872 that have temporarily closed due to the instability caused by armed conflicts.

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