A new Christian community has been born in the country devastated by civil war, welcoming those displaced from the most affected areas. The story of Father Robert Moe, a Burmese PIME missionary who returned to his country of origin after twelve years
Rebuilding the ethnic and social mosaic of Myanmar starting from the desolation generated by the war: this is the task that the Burmese Father Robert Moe, born in 1979, PIME missionary in the diocese of Taunggyi, capital of the Shan State, in the central-eastern part of Village. Due to the civil conflict, resulting from the military coup of February 1, 2021 – when General Min Aung Hlaing took power by ousting the democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi – hundreds of displaced people have abandoned their homes seeking refuge in parishes, churches or Buddhist temples.
Many young people “went into the forest”, that is, they joined the resistance, made up of the historic ethnic militias (who have been fighting against the central government since independence in 1948 to obtain greater autonomy) and the People’s Defense Forces, which are part of the national unity government in exile. The militias and army troops also welcome minors into their ranks, sometimes left without families and in most cases with nothing to do because, between the pandemic and the conflict, many, especially in rural areas, have stopped go to school. The doctors and teachers who had been part of the Civil Disobedience Movement and had gone on strike in protest against the coup and refused to work as civil servants of the regime cannot yet return to their jobs for fear of retaliation from the military. Due to economic sanctions, the country has once again become isolated on an international and diplomatic level. Deprived of the tourism sector, the economy has collapsed, but the regime continues to enjoy the support of Russia, the army’s main supplier of weapons. In addition to bombing the areas occupied by the strongholds of pro-democracy groups almost daily, the military scatters anti-personnel mines around places of worship and cultivated fields to prevent the return of civilians and reduce them to starvation, so that they cannot support the resistance. According to United Nations data, there are approximately 2 million internally displaced people, while 63 thousand refugees have crossed national borders seeking refuge in Thailand or India.
It is in this terrible context that the PIME mission takes place, whose link with Burma began more than 150 years ago. It was 1868 when the Churches of Taunggyi and Keng Tung were created, today two of the five dioceses founded by the Institute in Myanmar. When in 1966 all the religious who had entered before independence were expelled in the name of the Burmese path to socialism, 29 PIME missionaries remained close to the population, regardless of the consequences. Although subsequent dictatorships have never allowed the local Church to breathe deeply, the bond between PIME and Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) has never disappeared: in the decade of democratic opening led by Aung San Suu Kyi, prize winner Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, there was a renewal of the local clergy to which the PIME priests also contributed with theological teachings in the seminary. Father Robert, ordained a priest in 2010 after studying at the Monza seminary, comes from this experience, a priesthood fruit of those seeds planted by the first missionaries who also gave their lives for the Burmese people.
Father Robert, who belongs to the ethnic group, returned home after 12 years of mission in Papua New Guinea Kayah, was in shock: «My family told me not to return – he says -, but I didn’t expect all this devastation». The priest joined the PIME missions already present in Yangon and Taunggyi, moving to the greenery of Shan State, which today welcomes displaced people from the surrounding regions, mostly coming from Moe Bye, Demoso and Loikaw. The latter, capital of Kayah State, about 150 kilometers south of Taunggyi, had over 50 thousand inhabitants before the war, but in the last two years due to frequent air attacks by the Burmese regime it has been reduced to a ghost town .
The refugees arrived after having lost their jobs, their homes, their loved ones and their future. Father Robert wasn’t very clear about the best way to be close to them, but he had an idea after hearing that many were complaining about the lack of spiritual guidance. In September 2022 the missionary asked the bishop of Taunggyi to be able to take care of around 400 families who had gathered in the village of Non Boong. Christian refugees who, although of different origins and ethnic backgrounds, with their mere presence have given life to a new community which perhaps, Father Robert hopes, could one day become a parish. A group of individuals mirroring the mosaic that makes up Myanmar, displaced but who in fact are no longer displaced: «They come mainly from Loikaw and from states with a Christian majority, but each speaks their own language», explains the missionary, who to celebrate the Mass uses the native language, the Kayah, which however «is not well understood by everyone. Or – he explains – the songs for the celebrations are all different and you have to learn them again.” That of the Non Boong community is therefore a new experiment in coexistence, above all because, unlike the Burmese states with a Christian majority, the Shan is inhabited mostly by Buddhists. «We live in the shadow of a large pagoda and try to collaborate with the monks, with whom we share food and donations. The Christians of Loikaw have a proud and expressive faith, they come from a city where almost all are Christians, but here – underlines the priest – it is important to keep a low profile”.
In fact, visits by the army are daily: the military raids even in the middle of the night looking for any excuse to raze everything to the ground, even if the missionaries and local residents are not at fault. «We want to stay calm but there is a lot of pressure», comments Father Robert. The fear of the presence of spies is widespread among the population: «No one trusts others, because you can never know with certainty which side the person in front of you is on. Those who participated in the protest movements after the coup, however, are afraid of being identified. There is mistrust, but even so we try to walk together.”
With all the limitations of the circumstances, the PIME missionary not only tries to respond to the spiritual needs of the community, but also to the material ones: «People have arrived with nothing, so the first step is to try to buy land. Luckily there is plenty of space available here. So far we have built a few houses and a hall that is used for celebrations and meetings.” Father Robert also sleeps in a small room of the simple wooden structure after visiting the families and helping in the construction of the homes. «I go around, talk and eat with them. Some families still live in tents in a large park. It’s still too early to hold courses, for example, you need patience.”
For the population itself, busying the day is still complicated. «Most people are looking for work. Some work day jobs, but many cannot travel and spend their time doing nothing. Every now and then some organization brings food, but it’s a life of survival. While the children do not want to go to schools run by the military junta, so some teach in the village, others study in the parish or in the nuns’ house”, explains the Burmese priest. Yet, even if with difficulty, the community is flourishing: «We are trying to put the pieces back together. Among the displaced there are former catechists or presidents of various associations, such as Catholic Action. Not long ago we celebrated the confirmation and first communion of about fifty children with the bishop of Taunggyi.” It may seem like little “but it is better to do little than do nothing”, adds Father Robert, who as soon as he returned had felt like a foreigner in his own land: “I had never done pastoral service in Myanmar – he says -. In addition to the initial shock, I felt scared, I believed I couldn’t do anything because the problems and needs of the population were too many. It was thanks to the support of my brothers that I found the strength to stay and continue walking with the Non Boong community. It’s a difficult experience and a process that takes time, but it will make us all grow.”
No one knows what direction the civil war will take, but everyone is certain that it will continue for a long time to come. The ethnic militias fighting against the military junta are no longer united as they were immediately after the coup and even if they were to prevail over the army it is difficult to imagine that they would not enter into conflict with each other for the control of the territories, many of which are rich in resources such as rare metals, precious stones and wood. The national unity government in exile has also lost credibility in the eyes of the population, while Aung San Suu Kyi has been in prison for over two years after being indicted by the military junta on false charges. The Non Boong community could therefore be the perfect example to look at to rebuild the future of Myanmar, a mosaic in which the pieces have been thrown away and must be put back together, a place where different ethnic groups and religions find space in harmony alongside each other (if political conditions permit). Father Robert has already chosen the name of the parish: «We would like to dedicate it to Our Lady, Queen of the Apostles, because we realized that in the diocese no church has been dedicated to the Mother of God». A piece of collage that was missing.
Il Pime in Myanmar
The first four missionaries (Eugenio Biffi, Rocco Tornatore, Tancredi Conti and Sebastiano Carbone) of what was still called the Lombard Seminary for foreign missions arrived in Taungoo in 1868 and then reached the regions beyond the Salween river, which divides Burma central from the eastern one. The missionary presence in Myanmar cost PIME the lives of five missionaries, killed between 1950 and 1953; among them Father Mario Vergara, beatified in 2014 together with his catechist Isidoro Ngei Ko Lat, first martyr of the Church of Myanmar, who joined the blessed Paolo Manna, founder of the Pontifical Missionary Union, and Clemente Vismara, who passed away in 1988 after more than 65 years spent in forest villages. After the confiscation of ecclesiastical property, in 1966 all the missionaries who arrived before independence in 1948 were expelled. The last of the 29 who remained in Myanmar was Father Paolo Noè, who died in Hwari in 2007 after 59 years spent among the shan eh karenin areas inaccessible to Westerners due to the war between the central government and local independentists.