Kachin Catholics make their mark on Myanmar’s strife-torn frontier

Kachin Catholic students in Myanmar. - Photo:  St Columbans Mission SocietyKachin Catholic students in Myanmar. - Photo:  St Columbans Mission Society

Part 1: Origins of the Catholic Church in the Kachin state

Fr Paul Lahpai Awng Dang worries less about the spillover of armed conflict between the military and ethnic Kachin rebels into his parish territory on the Myanmar–China border. The 46-year-old diocesan priest had grown in the violence overshadowing the ethnic-majority Kachin state in northern Myanmar, bordering China’s Yunnan province. “Our mission is faith formation, education and the China mission, which prioritizes pastoral care for the ethnic Kachin in Yunnan province,” said Fr Awng Dang.

The priest takes care of about 3,000 mostly Kachin Catholics in 587 households in Panghkak Parish in the Banmaw Diocese. Banmaw, about 800 kilometres from Yangon, is on the Irrawaddy River, in a lush, green, mountainous region known for teak logging, wooden houses and tourism. For years the Myanmar military have sought to subdue ethnic Kachin rebels, who allegedly have backing from their allies in China for their armed struggle for an independent Kachin homeland.

In June 2011, violence erupted between the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the military, forcing tens of thousands into dozens of makeshift camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs). The fighting has intensified since the February 1 military coup that unseated the elected civilian government of the National League for Democracy (NLD).

A major pastoral priority of the Panghkak Church is to offer humanitarian support to the thousands of displaced people in seven IDP camps within the radius of the parish in collaboration with the Catholic charity Karuna (Caritas). The parish also runs a boarding school for students from grade five to ten.

Fr Dang says the China mission offers great hope for the church as five Kachin priests have already been ordained and are serving the region under the state-approved church. “There is a growing number of Catholics in China’s Yunnan province, as many ethnic Kachin have converted from animism. Catechists serve the community, and we provide pastoral and social care for them,” he said.

Fr Dang strives to maintain a balanced, functional relationship with the three major groups - the KIA, the government, and Chinese authorities. Other challenges include ensuring the participation of laypeople in parish activities.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a roadblock. The China mission was suspended some time ago after authorities closed the border because of the pandemic. “Due to COVID-19, we were forced to suspend the boarding school and the mission in China,” Fr Dang said.

Fr Dang, Panghkak Parish and Banmaw Diocese were built on the legacy of Western missionaries, especially the Missionary Society of St Columban which evangelised in the area and laid the foundation of the Catholic Church there. He was baptised by a Columban missionary in a community dominated by Baptists. “The Bible inspired me to choose priestly life,” he said.

Nearby Pangkat village, located just eight kilometres from the China–Myanmar border, is the birthplace of Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam, the first bishop of Banmaw Diocese.

Bishop Gam was encouraged to become a priest by Irish Columban Fr James Fitzpatrick. The missionary supported the young boy to join a seminary in Yangon. Bishop Gam became a bishop in 2006. The late Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng of Mandalay was also one of Fr Fitzpatrick’s students.

Fr Fitzpatrick was part of a band of 12 Columban missionaries who arrived in what was then known as Burma in 1946. In Bhamo Fr Fitzpatrick worked tirelessly to serve about 1,000 Catholics who lived in the hills, requiring him to undertake long treks and pony rides up and down to offer spiritual and pastoral services. Poor health due to tuberculosis and high blood pressure constantly bothered him. He died on May 22, 1963.

Bishop Gam says that during his childhood, he was afraid to meet and greet Columban foreign missionaries because he saw them as strange people with a different skin tone and who spoke an unusual language. Thanks to the missionaries’ great example and their moral support, he got an education and became a priest in 1981.

“They prioritized evangelization among the Kachin people and transformed their lives through Christian education,” Bishop Gam told UCA News and he recalled an old saying that the Columbans had watered the plants of faith in Kachin, where missionaries from the Paris Foreign Mission Society (MEP) had sowed the seeds in the 19th century.

The first footprints of Catholicism were marked in 1856 when French MEP Bishop Paul Bigandet visited the northern region of Burma, including Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital. In 1873, three MEP priests arrived to carry out missionary activities. The extreme weather, including scorching heat, made the mission extremely difficult. In the three decades until 1901, a total of 14 priests either died or returned home in poor health due to malaria. The arrival of the Columbans from Ireland in 1936 gave new impetus to the mission, which eventually spread to the entire Kachin state.

By the 1950s, Burma was known as one of the richest countries in Asia, exporting rice, jade, gold, rubber and teak wood. Thanks to the high-quality education in Christian mission schools at that time, many considered Burma the best-educated nation in Southeast Asia.

Sadly, everything collapsed after the 1962 military takeover. Starting from 1965, military ruler General Ne Win nationalised all schools and hospitals, and in 1966, he ordered the expulsion of all missionaries who had arrived after 1948. Such short-sighted moves, coupled with iron-fisted military rule and a long-running ethnic insurgency, made a once-prosperous nation one of the poorest in Asia.

Nhkum Tang, an ethnic Kachin Catholic from a remote village in Kachin state, recalled the great endeavours of Columbans to take education to local communities. Tang studied in a school set up by the Columbans and graduated from a university in Mandalay. “Without help from Columban priests, especially financial support, it would have been difficult for us to join the universities and get a degree,” Tang, a father of eight, told UCA News.

The 75-year-old catechist says life was extremely challenging for the Kachin people in those days. They lived in remote areas and relied on agriculture for a living. No one went to school as there were no schools.

Before colonial rule, animism was the main belief system of the Kachin people. Agriculture on hill terrain was their mainstay for ages. More recently, jade and gold mining has become a major livelihood for many.

Tang said his grandparents were animists, and his parents became Catholics before he was born.

Missionaries came to the village riding ponies, usually once a year, with food and medicines stacked on their saddles. “It was a joyful moment for Kachin people when Columban priests visited the village despite all the challenges, including poor transportation, mountainous terrain and the shortage of priests,” he recalled.

After finishing his education, Tang attended a catechism course in a church-run school. He then went on to serve on the pastoral council in Banmaw Diocese for more than five decades. “It’s a privilege for me to get an education and serve in the church thanks to much help from the Columbans,” Tang said. “I can’t express my deep gratitude to them. The Columbans and the Church in Kachin cannot be separated as their contributions to us are so impressive.”

Union of Asian Catholic News, www.ucanews.com/news/kachin-catholics-make-their-mark-on-myanmars-strife-torn-frontier/95133

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