Myanmar junta mounts third attack on Catholic archbishop’s home village since coup

The Sagaing Region village of Mon Hla is the birthplace of Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who has shown public support for the military with only rare exceptions since his appointment to the archbishopric in 2015

Around 100 soldiers and pro-junta militia members conducted a raid in Khin-U Township, Sagaing Region on Thursday, torching dozens of homes and a school in the birthplace of Myanmar’s highest-ranking Catholic cleric, locals said. 

A combined force of infantry troops and junta-trained Pyu Saw Htee militia members advanced from Kanbalu Township, Sagaing Region into Ye-U and Taze townships last week, setting fire to villages and killing civilians before moving into Khin-U Township.  

Reaching Khin-U Township’s Mon Hla village, which is made up of more than 500 households, they torched residents’ homes and a school compound where displaced civilians had been sheltering, according to a Mon Hla villager.

Once the junta troops and Pyu Saw Htee members left Mon Hla, he added, residents who had fled returned to the village and saw that dozens of houses and the school building had been destroyed in the arson attack. 

“We found that about 70 houses had been gutted by the fires. The school building was gone,” the villager said.

This is not the first raid by junta forces on Mon Hla. It was among five villages hit by a junta airstrike in July 2022, which reportedly damaged a local church and other religious buildings. 

In November 2022, a column of around 80 junta soldiers set fire to a high school and around 150 residential houses in the village. The November 2022 raid resulted in the deaths of one child, one woman, and six local resistance fighters. 

A house gutted by a junta arson attack in Mon Hla village, Khin-U Township in November 2022. (Photo: Myanmar Now)

Before Thursday’s attack, another school spared in the November 2022 raid was serving as a shelter for more than 100 internally displaced persons (IDPs) who had fled other Sagaing Region villages dominated by the Pyu Saw Htee militias. The column of junta troops and Pyu Saw Htee members burned it to the ground on Thursday. 

“They burned down the school housing the IDPs. And they didn’t just torch the school building, they also set fire to the tents,” the Mon Hla villager said, referring to tents on the school compound where IDPs had been sleeping after space ran out in the main building.

“The IDPs have suffered a lot, that’s why they sought refuge at the school,” the villager added. 

Mon Hla is four miles north of Pyin Htaung village, where the Pyu Saw Htee’s main base in Khin-U Township is located. 

The leader of a Mon Hla-based local resistance group said that as the junta column was approaching the village, resistance fighters engaged them in battle for around an hour before the disparity in firepower forced them to retreat.  

“They approached from an unexpected direction. We had only planted explosives on other routes into the village. There was a major imbalance in weaponry and ammunition, so we retreated. That’s when they started fires in the village,” the local resistance leader said. 

A school in Mon Hla village, which was torched by junta forces in November 2022 (Photo – Myanmar Now)

Exact casualty figures on either side of Thursday’s clash remain unconfirmed. The military council has not released any public statements on attacks by its troops or militias in the area.  

The column reportedly advanced on to Aung Thar Yar village, a Pyu Saw Htee stronghold some three miles north of Mon Hla, after the raid. 

Mon Hla is home to a population of Christians of Portuguese descent—known as Bayingyi in Myanmar—as well as members of the country’s Buddhist majority. The village has a monastery, a Catholic Church, and a high school. 

It is the native village of Charles Maung Bo, Myanmar’s only Catholic cardinal, who was appointed archbishop of Yangon by Pope Francis in 2015. 

Charles Maung Bo has generally been supportive of the Myanmar military in his public statements. In 2017, at the height of the military-led mass slaughter and displacement of Rohingya civilians in Rakhine State, the cardinal denied that any ethnic cleansing was taking place. 

He was photographed with the Sen.-Gen. Min Aung Hlaing to celebrate the Christmas holidays in December 2021, less than a year after the general led the military in ousting Myanmar’s civilian government and firing on peaceful protesters. 

In May 2021, seven months before Charles Maung Bo’s Christmas appearance with the junta chief, four civilians sheltering in a church near Loikaw, Karenni State had been killed by junta shelling. In response, the cardinal had called for the military to stop targeting religious sites in a rare moment of dissent from the junta. 

A report released by Data for Myanmar in December 2023 indicated that nearly 78,737 homes had been burned down by junta forces nationwide since the military coup of February 2021.

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