While Bob was trekking I decided to walk a couple kilometers up the hill in Kalaw to Christ the King Church. Sr. Christine, a Burmese nun who was walking behind me caught up with me and introduced herself.
When we got to the church compound about 20 little girls in raggedy clothes came running out to greet us. These are our children, Sister says. They have no parents so they live with us. (The boys live with Father Paul in the rectory.) Then the children all lined up to sing some touching little songs about friendship for us…obviously having done this before.
How do you get money to support yourself, I asked…giving her an opening. By donations from tourists, she said honestly. Then she asked me to sit and have juice and little butter and bread sandwiches while we talked softly and quickly about the oppression of the military government which had confiscated most of the buildings belonging to the church. They lost their school and dormitories…everything except the rectory and one small building the four nuns share; the children sleep on cotton mats on the sidewalk out in front of the building at night.
I asked Sister if she had seen the BBC (British Broadcasting Corp) special on TV a few nights before about the war going on between the government and the ethnic groups. Oh no, she said, they didn’t get satellite TV. (About a year before she had visually seen the Pope for the first time in her life on a video.) When I described some of the atrocities that the BBC special showed, including a Karen village burned to the ground on Nov 11, 2001, she began to cry…remembering, she said…her father who had been tortured and killed by the army.
When the missionaries, mostly Catholic, arrived in the country, she explained, they immediately went into the outlying areas of the country where most of the ethnic minorities were located. So now, the people in central Burma are nearly all Buddhist and the minority areas are mostly Catholic and some Baptist. The ethnic groups therefore are not only culturally and linguistically different than the ethnic Berman people in central Burma but religiously different as well.
In the BBC special an American doctor from Louisiana said that burning the villages to the ground causes much more suffering for the people who are then forced to run into the jungle with whatever possessions they can carry…stopping to cook some food on little fires on the ground… than if they just shot the people. The most effective weapons, he said, are fear, poverty, hunger and disease. In addition, the army kidnaps young teenage boys from their families and forces them to be porters in the jungle. One who was interviewed by BBC said that they know if they run they will be shot and killed like others they have seen.
Though the doctor was in an area off-limits to foreigners, he said: “There are times when you have to take a stand and fight the evil…when we see people, their homes destroyed putting their belongings on their backs and slowly walking into the jungle to find someplace to hide, we know we have every right to be here because no one else will come to help.” By the time the world wakes up to the plight of the minorities it will be too late, he says, in spite of all the UN resolutions and efforts of governments who have put pressure on the country.
But our tour driver in Pagan (Bagan ) had denied that there was any fighting going on in Burma…
The highlight of the visit to mass at Christ The King Church the next day, Sunday, was the singing by the children. The entire back half of the church was filled with children singing with strong raised voices…singing with exhaltation if ever I heard it.