Myanmar (former Burma)

Columban Missionaries in Myanmar celebrating the local diocesan Jubilee celebration, the ordination to the diaconate and St Columban's Day (patron of Myitkyina diocese) on 15th November, 2014.

In the region of Myanmar (former Burma), Columban Fathers work together with Columban Sisters and Lay Missionaries from a standpoint of solidarity with the poor and integrity of creation.

Through a variety of ministries and work we focus our mission on:

  • Vocations and Formation.
  • Promotion of dialogue between peoples of different ethnic and religious groups – Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians – the relevance and necessity of which is becoming ever more apparent in today’s world.
  • Educational Projects for the Youth: The youth in the Kachin State are particularly vulnerable as they are often caught up in the civil war between the Kachin and Burmese armies. Many are unemployed and easily become drug victims. Through the generous support of Columban benefactors, Columban Missionaries have been able to build schools for thousands of internally displaced Kachins, as well as help train teachers and school-boarding masters.
  • Development Projects: Medium and long term income generating projects for these students and their parents have also been established including the Weavers’ Project in Edin (Myitkyina), the small scale farming in many of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, and the construction of the Cultural Centre in the town of Banmaw where young artists and musicians work towards preserving the Kachin way of life.
  • Support for Women: Columban Sisters help facilitate a women’s centre which offers counseling and other services for women, including a traditional weaving centre.
  • Care for the Sick: Columban Sisters also faciliate a home care health program for people living with HIV/AIDS at the Hope Centre, a drug rehabilitation program for youth, and a respite house to enable rural communities living afar from population centres to avail medical care.

Columban history in Myanmar (Burma)

The Columbans began missionary work in Burma (Myanmar) in 1936 among the Kachin tribal people in northern Burma. By 1939, the Columban area had become the Prefecture Apostolic of Banmaw (transition stage to becoming a diocese) under Columban Bishop Patrick Usher and was served by 38 Columban priests. This area became the Diocese of Myitkyina in 1961, with Columban Bishop John Howe as the first bishop of the diocese.

Burma was one of the richest countries in Asia in the 1950s, exporting rice, jade, gold, rubber and teak wood. In the great Irrawaddy River it had a perfect natural highway running from the far North to the Indian Ocean. Now it is one of the poorest countries in Asia. It was a tragic turn in history when the military-socialist government took over the country in 1964. They had nationalized the schools and hospitals and in 1966 the Myanmar Government ordered all missionaries who had arrived after 1948 to leave the country.

In 1977, Columban Bishop Howe consecrated Fr Paul Grawng as the new Bishop of Myitkyina. Fr Paul had been ordained in 1965 by Bishop Howe as the first Kachin priest. The last three Columban Missionaries eventually left Myanmar in 1979. By that time, there were five Kachin priests in the diocese.

After 1979, Bishop John Howe continued to work for the Katchin people through his work with Radio Veritas in the Philippines. Other Columbans continued support over the years in various forms. From 1998, Columbans Fathers Colm Murphy, John Colgan, Eamon Sheridan and Eamonn O ‘Brien worked in Myitkyina in various apostolates ranging from formation to pastoral planning and services to the very remote areas.

Three members of the new Columban Mission team based in Yangon, Myanmar, Columban Fr Neil Magill (right) with Frs Carlo Jung and Jehoon Lee.

After an absence of over 30 years and with a warm welcome from Bishop Francis of Myitkyina, Myanmar, Columban priests started preparing their return to the diocese in 2015. A new Columban Mission team, comprising of priests and lay missionaries began to formally serve the Kachin people of Myanmar, once again, on July 1st, 2016. The Columban Sisters had returned to the Diocese of Myitkyina, Myanmar, earlier in 2003 and was joined by Columban Fr Neil Magill in 2006.

The security and political situation in Kachin State remains unsure and unresolved. The nation of Myanmar is a union of seven divisions and seven states, which are the homelands of one of the main indigenous groups (Kachin State being one). The Kachin Army is still fighting for more autonomy, and for a share of the mineral wealth of their areas. As the conflict continues, and the refugees, although deeply desiring to return to their villages, still lack courage to do so, due to the presence of landmines and ongoing fierce military skirmishes.

Columbans are proud to be walking with the Kachin people, and even though Myanmar is still in dark times, we believe that one day they will rest once again in the green pastures of their native soil.

The Kachin people have hope and with Aung San Suu Kyi, once more democratically elected as a State Deputy, we can only pray their hopes will be fully realised.

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