REFUGEES who fled a surge in violence carry food aid across a river on the Thai border.—AFP
REFUGEES who fled a surge in violence carry food aid across a river on the Thai border.—AFP

YANGON: Hundreds of Buddhist monks have fled two major towns in eastern Myanmar, witnesses said on Sunday, among thousands of people recently displaced by fighting between the military and rebel groups opposed to last year’s coup.

A military power-grab in Myanmar 11 months ago expelled civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and sparked mass protests and a subsequent crackdown that has killed more than 1,400 people.

Loikaw town in eastern Myanmar’s Kayah state saw intense fighting last week that the United Nations estimates has forced almost 90,000 people to flee. Local NGOs have placed that figure far higher at 170,000.

“More than half the population of Loikaw township has been internally displaced,” the UN said.

A Buddhist monk said around 30 monasteries had been abandoned — an unusual sight in a nation where holy men are revered and temples are considered safe havens.

“It was impossible for us to stay there,” the monk said, requesting anonymity for his safety.

“It was hard to make the decision to leave, but we had to do it.” The monk, among roughly 5,000 people who have fled Loikaw to eastern Shan state, said 12 monasteries in nearby Demoso town had also been emptied.

A community leader in Taunggyi in Shan state said last week he had seen a group of at least 30 monks arrive in the township seeking refuge. A Christian priest said about 15 priests also fled Loikaw last week.

Rebel fighters have taken over churches and homes in the town and also attacked a prison, said a policeman who asked for anonymity.

“The town is deserted like a cemetery. The situation in town is very bad,” he said. Roughly 600 vehicles were leaving the town daily, the police officer added.

Both Demoso and Loikaw are rebel strongholds and the UN says fighting has intensified in the region since December.

Over Christmas the bodies of at least 35 people — including two Save the Children NGO workers — were found burnt in Kayah state, an atrocity blamed on junta troops.

Earlier this week UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called on junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to “halt the air and ground attacks” on Loikaw, lift a blockade on people seeking to escape, and allow aid to get through.

Suu Kyi ‘indispensable’ to democracy

Myanmar’s ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi was “indispensable” to restoring democracy to the country, the Philippines foreign minister said Sunday, echoing condemnation of her recent sentencing by a junta court.

The Nobel laureate, who has been detained since the February 1 coup last year, was convicted on January 10 of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison.

The junta court has since hit Suu Kyi, 76, with five new corruption charges — adding to a slew of cases against her.

While several Western countries, including the United States and Norway, have slammed the latest sentencing, Southeast Asian leaders have been largely silent.

Philippines Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin broke ranks on Sunday, tweeting he had adopted “as my own” a statement by his Norwegian counterpart Anniken Huitfeldt that condemned the sentencing.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2022

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