Monks flee temples in eastern Myanmar amid intense fighting

Buddhist monks are revered in Myanmar and temples are considered safe havens. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - Hundreds of Buddhist monks fled two major towns in Myanmar, a witness said on Sunday (Jan 16), among thousands recently displaced by intense fighting between the military and rebel groups opposed to last year's coup.

A military power-grab 11 months ago expelled civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi's government, with mass protests and subsequent crackdowns killing more than 1,400 - as dozens of rebel groups sprang up to oppose the regime.

Loikaw town - in eastern Myanmar's Kayah state - saw intense fighting last week and the United Nations (UN) estimates that almost 90,000 people have fled, with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) placing that figure far higher at 170,000.

"More than half the population of Loikaw township has been internally displaced," the UN said.

A Buddhist monk told AFP around 30 monasteries had been abandoned – an unusual sight in a nation where holy men are revered and temples are considered safe havens.  

"It was impossible for us to stay there," the monk said, requesting anonymity for his safety. "It was hard to make the decision to leave, but we had to do it."

The monk, who is among the roughly 5,000 people who have fled to eastern Shan state, said 12 monasteries in nearby Demoso town had also emptied.

A community leader in Taunggyi in Shan state said last week he had seen a group of at least 30 monks arrive in the township seeking refuge.  

A Christian priest told AFP about 15 priests also fled Loikaw last week. 

Rebel fighters have taken over churches and homes, a policeman - who asked for anonymity - said, adding they had also attacked a prison.

"The town is deserted like a cemetery. The situation in town is very bad," he said.

Roughly 600 vehicles were leaving the town daily, the police officer added.

Both Demoso and Loikaw are rebel strongholds, with the UN noting that fighting has intensified in the region since December.

Over Christmas, the bodies of at least 35 people - including two Save the Children NGO workers - were found burnt in Kayah state, an atrocity blamed on junta troops.

Earlier this week, UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called on junta leader Min Aung Hlaing to "halt the air and ground attacks" on Loikaw, lift the blockade of those seeking to escape, and allow aid to get through.

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