The early works the Catholic Mission in Kachin Land can be traced back to the time of the great legendary missionary Bishop Paul Ambrose Bigandet MEP (Missions Etrangers de Paris), the Foreign Mission Society of Paris.
He was then the vicar of Pegu, lower Burma, under the Colonial English Rule and the vicar of Ava which was the Kingdom of Burmese Kings in upper Burma. He visited upper Burma, in 1865, and came to see Banmaw town; then Fr. Louis Biet, Fr. Liyet and Fr. Lecomte were sent to stay in Banmaw in 1872-1874.
The evangelization and mission work of the MEP gradually spread over the Banmaw region amidst terribly difficult situations and deadly cerebral malaria and other sicknesses. With a new reinforcement of dauntless missionary priests and religious (Franciscan Missionary of Mary Sisters in 1923) and catechists from Taungoo, lower Burma and their undaunted missionary zeal, a community of faith began to take shape among the Kachin and Shan people in the Banmaw region.
The arrival of the Columban Missionaries
At the request of the MEP and with the mandate of the Pope, the first Columban missionaries set foot in Banmaw at the end of October 1936 to take over the mission from the MEP. In 1939, the Holy See formally erected the districts of Banmaw, Myitkyina and Katha into the Prefecture Apostolic of Banmaw, and Rev. Fr. Patrick Usher was named the first Apostolic Prefect. The Second World War disrupted the growing mission activities, and priests and nuns had to take refuge in the Mandalay leprosy colony. When they came back in 1945, the war had left nothing for them and they had to start everything from the beginning. When the courageous Msgr. Patrick Usher died in 1958, the Vicar Delegate and Pro-prefect, Rev. Fr. John Howe, succeeded Msgr. Usher.
In 1961, the Apostolic Prefecture was erected in the diocese of Myitkyina and in the same year Msgr. John Howe was consecrated Bishop of Myitkyina. On 27 March 1965, Msgr. John Howe and the diocese had one of their greatest joys in ordaining the first Kachin priest in the person of Paul Zinghtung Grawng. On 3 April 1976, Bishop Howe, with the mandate and blessing of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, ordained Fr. Paul Grawng as his auxiliary bishop. The following year the diocese was handed over to the indigenous clergy and the Columbans finally left in 1979. In 1994, Msgr. Philip Za Hawng was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Myitkyina and assigned as Bishop of Lashio Diocese in 1998. In 2002, Bishop Francis Daw Tang was ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Myitkyina and became Bishop of Myitkyina when Bishop Paul Grawng was transferred and installed as Archbishop of Mandalay in 2003.
The creation of Banmaw Diocese
As the mission territory of Myitkyina diocese was far distant and remote and the number of believers was rapidly increasing, Pope Benedict XVI created a new diocese of Banmaw taken from part of Myitkyina and suffragan to the Archdiocese of Mandalay, and appointed Msgr. Raymond Sumlut Gam as the first Bishop of the diocese on 18 November 2006.
The Church in Kachin Land (Myitkyina-Banmaw), like any other diocese in the country, did not simply enjoy a smooth-sailing ride as far as her missionary activities were concerned. Rough and tough situations often paved the way and the little band of young and energetic clergy found enough courage to blaze the trail and carry the Gospel message to remote and hazardous areas. Today, after all those hard years of worries and anxieties, pain and toil, suffering and anguish, the diocese has increased in the number of clergy and faithful.
It is situated in the northern part of Myanmar, bordered by India to the west, and China to the east and Mandalay Archdiocese and Lashio Diocese to the south. It is approximately 30,126 sq.miles in area with a civil population of about 2,339,336, coexisting interculturally with diverse ethnic people such as the Burmese, Kachin, Karen, Shan, Chinese, Indian, and other tribes with their own dialects; and a Catholic population of about 114,006 living scattered on the hills with the rest living on the lower lands. There are 32 parishes with 2 bishops, 57 priests, over 180 religious, 732 catechists, 36 major seminarians and about 163 minor seminarians in Myitkyina and Banmaw dioceses.
As the armed conflict taking place in Kachin Land was renewed, out of 36 parishes, 12 parishes are badly hit, hundreds of villages are abandoned and over 100,000 peoples from the two dioceses are internally displaced. Therefore, humanitarian assistance to the IDPs and issues of justice and peace have become part of the priorities for pastoral social services. Currently 75% of the humanitarian assistance to the IDPs is given by the Church through Karuna (Caritas) Myanmar. Recently, three Kachin bishops issued an appeal for peace in the armed conflict-affected region. The bishops said: “We urge all – the state and the non-state participants in the armed conflict – to seek a lasting solution to the conflict. Peace is possible in this country. Peace, based on justice, is the only way for all. The Kachin and other ethnic issues can be solved through a genuine federalism that ensures the integrity of ethnic identity, culture and resources”.
The bishops were “deeply disturbed by the unscrupulous exploitation of the people’s resources. All efforts at grabbing the traditional lands of our people must be stopped. Colonial laws are used to usurp the traditional ethnic lands. We urge the government to acknowledge the ethnic customary laws. Land laws enacted in 2012 pose a great threat to our lands. Land questions may ultimately decide the future of peace in this land. We hope for a greater sensitivity to be exercised by all parties”.
Finally the bishops said: “The war has denied the fundamental right to livelihood, forcing hundreds of our youth to risky livelihood options. This has exposed a generation to human trafficking and drug trade. Drug addiction has reached a very dangerous level. Lack of border controls and lack of law enforcement has emboldened mafia to have a free run in Kachin, Shan and other ethnic areas. We implore all to enforce strict border controls and stringent punishment to the culprits. Community initiatives are to be encouraged”. (J.K.)