Devastation in Chin: the churches caught up in Myanmar’s conflict

January 23rd, 2024  •  Author:   Centre for Information Resilience  •  4 minute read
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A report released today by CIR’s Myanmar Witness project has revealed the impact of Myanmar’s conflict on churches in Chin, described as the country’s only Christian-majority state. Investigators identified and analysed 10 incidents where churches were damaged – mostly in airstrikes – between March and August 2023.

User-generated content (UGC) analysed and geolocated by Myanmar Witness and presented in five case studies reveals the extent of damage to churches in Chin’s Thantlang, Falam and Hakha townships. In some instances, photographs shared online showed the buildings with significant structural damage, including caved-in roofs. In several cases, civilian casualties and the destruction of nearby homes were also reported. 

Matt Lawrence, project director of Myanmar Witness described the destruction of churches in Chin state as “symbolic as well as physical”.

“We found the conflict in Myanmar is having a sustained and long-term impact on the Christian population of Chin state. These places of worship are not only protected under international law during times of conflict, but they’re of sacred importance to those who use them,” Lawrence added. 

Myanmar Witness has geolocated footage showing significant damage to the residential buildings which neighbour Khuafo Baptist Church, shown here in the pink box [22.752130, 93.425063] (source: Ayeyarwaddy Times, warning: graphic link).

The State Administration Council, or SAC, who maintain overwhelming air superiority in Myanmar, were often cited as the perpetrator in news reports and social media claims analysed by Myanmar Witness. Since the military coup in February 2021, airstrikes have been a frequent occurrence across the country, with schools, villages, monasteries and hospitals hit.

Out of the 10 incidents involving damage to churches recorded by Myanmar Witness, seven involved allegations of airstrikes. In a case study of a reported airstrike in Thantlang in March 2023, investigators analysed photos showing crumpled metalwork and the fin section of an S-8 80mm unguided rocket. S-8 rockets are exclusively air-launched, and the available UGC is consistent with the allegation of an airstrike.

On 2 February 2023, the SAC’s ‘Martial Law Order 1/2023’ transferred administrative and judicial authority to military commanders in 37 townships, including seven in Chin. All 10 incidents involving damage to churches identified by Myanmar Witness occurred in townships that had been placed under martial law in February.

Drawing on data from across Myanmar, the report finds a correlation between townships disproportionately affected by airstrikes in the latter half of 2022, and those placed under martial law in early 2023.

Map showing the locations of airstrikes recorded by Myanmar Witness from July-December 2022. Some incidents have been verified while others are claims. Townships which were placed under martial law on 2 February 2023 are highlighted in red. Map created by Myanmar Witness using QGIS.

Myanmar Witness’s report also analyses data collected by Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED) to examine trends in incidents involving church buildings since the February 2021 coup. 

ACLED logged 28 reports of damage to churches in Chin state between 1 February 2021 to 8 September 2023, which included alleged airstrikes, artillery attacks, and cases of arson and looting. Data from 2023 reveals a shift in tactics, however, with an increase in airstrikes and a decline in infantry attacks – potentially reflecting the military’s diminished ground control in these areas, according to the report. 

The conflict in Myanmar has evolved and spread since the coup in February 2021, when Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.

What started as the violent repression of largely peaceful pro-democracy protests in major urban areas has developed into a country-wide civil war, with a concerted effort to violently suppress opposition to the military regime through airstrikes, fire and ground raids.

Myanmar Witness’s investigations have found that places of worship, including churches and monasteries, have often been caught up in the violence – despite being protected under international humanitarian law. 

In December 2023, the team reported on a spate of attacks involving various religious sites across Myanmar. Most of the reports included claims of airstrikes by the Myanmar military. The incidents took place in Shan, Bago and Kayin, and involved damage to churches, monasteries, a religious statue, a school, and multiple houses – showing that even if places of worship are not being specifically targeted by the Myanmar military, they are certainly not being protected.

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