Troops loyal to Myanmar’s junta have torched an entire village—including a Baptist church and a dozen other buildings—in the country’s embattled Chin state, residents said Thursday, prompting condemnation from a local human rights group which called the act a “war crime” under international law.
The burnings took place on Wednesday afternoon, after a military convoy of around 40 vehicles and two tanks headed from Falam township to the Chin state capital Hakha was attacked about three miles outside of Falam by the anti-junta Chin Defense Force militia, an armed group formed to combat Myanmar’s military in the western state, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Following the clash, the military set up camp in Rialti village—some five miles further along the road to Hakha from the site where the convoy was attacked—and began setting buildings alight, residents said.
A religious leader from the Rialti Village Baptist Church, who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal, said that the military initially burned eight homes around 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, before continuing to set buildings on fire Thursday morning.
“This morning, it was the church and our warehouse—those two were set on fire earlier this morning and at about 9:00 a.m., the remaining three houses,” he said.
“All were gone in a short while. The whole village, including the church, was set on fire. Eight houses were torched yesterday. In all, 13 buildings, including the church, were destroyed.”
Residents said that the troops only left the village on Thursday after making sure that the buildings were ablaze. They told RFA that they had fled to nearby forested hills when the military arrived on Wednesday and watched from afar as the structures went up in flames.
Junta spokesman Maj Gen Zaw Min Tun on Thursday dismissed reports that government troops were responsibile for the burning of the church and homes in Rialti village, saying the military “does not open fire on any religious building or in any village.”
“It’s not right to blame the military every time something happens during a battle—it’s always an exchange of fire between the two sides,” he said.
“What we do know is that there was no fighting in that locality. Additionally, we are rebuilding religious buildings that were destroyed by fire or other reasons.”
But Salai Za Op Lin, deputy executive director of the India-based Chin Human Rights Organization, confirmed to RFA that the military had burned down the Baptist church and other buildings in Rialti village and called the act a “war crime.”
“We see this as a war crime because wherever they go, they focus on wherever there are large numbers of people—it’s a deliberate violation of religious freedom,” he said, noting that other Christian communities in Chin state have been targeted since the military seized power in a February coup.
“Now that the military has started a real operation in Chin state, we can expect a lot of such abuses and acts, and we urge the international community to keep a close eye on this.”
Last month, Pastor Cung Biak Hum, 31, was shot and killed when he and several others ran to put out fires set by government soldiers during an attack on Chin state’s Thantlang town, the scene of recent fighting with civilian militias that oppose the junta takeover.
Attacks on churches
Myanmar’s military overthrew the democratically elected National League for Democracy government on Feb. 1, claiming the party had stolen the country’s November 2020 ballot through voter fraud.
The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently repressed anti-coup protests, killing at least 1,171 people and arresting 7,308 others, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
Amid nationwide turmoil, the military has stepped up offensives in remote parts of the country, triggering fierce battles with local People’s Defense Force militias and some of the dozens of ethnic armies that control large swathes of territory along Myanmar’s periphery.
According to Salai Za Op Lin, the military’s actions on Wednesday marked the eighth time junta forces have destroyed a Christian church in Chin state in the more than eight months since taking over the government. He said that while the military has attacked churches with heavy weapons and destroyed religious objects in the past, the incident in Rialti was the first time a church was set on fire.
Dr. Hkalam Samson of the Kachin Baptist Association called any kind of an attack on churches “unacceptable.”
“We have always objected to the intentional destruction of religious buildings in the midst of conflict,” he said.
“We could understand and accept this kind of thing if it was an accident. But there has been a lot of intentional destruction and we cannot accept such actions.”
Christians make up around six percent of Buddhist-majority Myanmar’s population.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.