Myanmar's displaced Christians rebuild lives on Yangon's outskirts

Chin children playing in Hmawbi, on the outskirts of Yangon, where hundreds of members of the Chin ethnic community have settled after being displaced by fighting between Myanmar's military and the Arakan Army in the country's north. - AFP

YANGON, Jan 24 (AFP): Hammering at bamboo poles to erect a stilt house, minority Christians who have fled conflict in northern Myanmar are building a sanctuary on the outskirts of Yangon.

The small Christian community in the Buddhist-majority nation is part of 200,000 people displaced since 2018 by fierce fighting in northern Rakhine state.

The conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army, a militant group agitating for more autonomy for ethnic Rakhine people, has left hundreds dead or injured.

It has spilled over into neighbouring Chin state, forcing ethnic Chin, who are predominantly Christian, out of their villages and into temporary camps.

"We were the hosts of this war from two sides and we saw a lot of trouble," says Kan Lwat, who remembers artillery shelling on his town in Chin state.

The 36-year-old is the leader of about 80 Chin people who travelled more than 600 kilometres (370 miles) from the remote town of Paletwa to Myanmar's sprawling commercial capital, where they spent brief stints in temporary camps.

They settled last month on a small plot of land in Yangon's Hmawbi Township and decided to christen their village Baythala -- or "Bethel" -- the biblical town that served as a refuge for those in need, says Kan Lwat.

"It means Jesus was blessing and helping people in trouble with this place, which will be peaceful."

At Baythala, the villagers bathe outdoors, splashing themselves with water stored in large urns, while children play nearby and women prepare dinner as the sun sets.

There is no water supply or electricity yet, says Kan Lwat, and building new homes has taken longer than expected as they wait for donations to buy the materials.

- A rare peace -

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed once-bustling Yangon into an economic slump, making it difficult for the Chin migrants to find work.

"We have no jobs right now," the village leader says, adding that their food supplies are donated from Christian organisations and Chin rights groups.

Despite their troubles, having a safe place without the daily fear of artillery shelling or soldiers encroaching on their village is a godsend, says pastor Aung Far.

"Even if we wanted to go home, we can't live in peace because there's still fighting," the pastor says.

As she chops cucumbers in preparation for dinner, Hla Sein watches men hammering bamboo poles together to make a nearby house.

"I hope to stay in my own house in this village forever," says the 35-year-old.

"I feel happy living here. It's a different feeling (than) in my home village."

Kan Lwat is hopeful that once the pandemic eases, and the adults find employment, 30 or so children in the village will have access to better education.

"Even if our lives are not good, I hope my children will have a brighter future ahead," he says. - AFP
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