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Church leaders make rare call for peace

Statement follows escalation in fighting in Kachin State

Church leaders make rare call for peace
People take refuge in a temporary shelter in Kachin State. More than 100,000 have been displaced since a ceasefire ended in mid-2011

Catholic and Protestant leaders in Myanmar have issued a rare statement calling for an end to conflict in northern Kachin state where three civilians including an elderly deacon were killed by artillery fire on Monday.

Bishop John Hsane Hgyi, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar, and Yin Yin Maw, president of the Myanmar Council of Churches (MCC), yesterday urged an end to recent aerial bombing and artillery fire by government forces and called for international monitors to be permitted access.

“All parties’ concerned [should] return to the negotiating table with the help of neutral facilitators, if required. Peace is possible,” the statement read.

Church leaders in the country rarely speak out on Myanmar’s many insurgent conflicts for fear of retribution from a regime which, until recently, demonstrated a low tolerance for dissent of any kind.

“We should have made our voice heard earlier by issuing a number of appeal letters,” said Bishop Sumlut Gam from Banmaw diocese in Kachin State. “Quite frankly, it’s a late response now.”

However, MCC general secretary Shwe Lin said the timing of the statement by Christian groups was to make sure that the right message was delivered after careful consideration.

“Some may view it as too late to release a statement but for our church leaders, it’s acting at the right time,” he said.

More than 100,000 people have been displaced since fighting restarted in June 2011 following the end of a 17-year ceasefire in what is a predominantly Christian area of Myanmar.

Despite assertions from President Thein Sein that the army would end fighting, the conflict has escalated in recent weeks.

The government this month admitted for the first time that it was carrying out air strikes.

The three civilian fatalities on Monday were the first for some time in Laiza, the stronghold of the rebel Kachin Independence Army on the border with China.

Following the attacks, about 200 residents fled to take shelter in two churches in Laiza.

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