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Rights central to national peace

True democratic reform must give rights to all of Myanmar's ethnic peoples

Rights central to national peace
Father Paul Wanghte Lum Dau, Myitkyina

January 23, 2012

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Since an outbreak of fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shattered a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement in June last year, tens of thousands of villagers in the ethnic region have been forced to flee their homes and seek tenuous shelter in makeshift camps near the country’s border with China. Exact numbers of refugees are difficult to come by, as the population fluctuates and as some displaced people take refuge across the border in China with friends or family members. However after more than six months of fighting, sources in Kachin state put the number of affected at more than 50,000. This number does not include thousands of rural residents who have received little assistance from Church associations, particularly farmers, whose lives and livelihoods have been disrupted by war. The focus of relief efforts has remained fixed on residents dislocated from urban areas, while farmers and others in dire need continue to suffer the consequences of a disruption in the sowing and harvesting of their crops. Many in areas affected by fighting have either been prevented from sowing their crops or forced to flee their farms just as the crops have ripened. But farmers are not the only ones feeling the effects of months of widespread fighting. Many residents of urban areas in Bhamo district rely on access to overland trade routes to Laiza, Mandalay and elsewhere. As many of these routes have become battlegrounds in past months, small business owners have lost their principal source of income. Displaced people who have managed to seek shelter in camps, Churches or other urban locations have received some assistance from various sources, but many others have largely been left to fend for themselves, particularly those who have crossed the border into China. There are an estimated 5,000 Kachin in six camps in China, where sources say Chinese authorities have done little to address the growing shortage of food, water and access to basic health care. Church organizations have done what they could to provide for refugees but lack funds and supplies to make substantial contributions. Women, children and the elderly are among the most vulnerable populations affected by displacement. Many have not survived the journey from their homes to the relative safety of camps or other refuges. Complicating matters in Kachin state further are ongoing peace talks and the broader efforts to reform society under Myanmar’s President Thein Sein, who last month issued a general order to the Myanmar army to cease hostilities in Kachin state. Despite his order, government troops have yet to withdraw from Kachin state. Moreover, peace talks between the government and the KIA have yet to see tangible results. Myanmar’s industry minister, Aung Thaung, headed a peace delegation last week that met with KIA representatives in the Chinese border town of Ruili, where the two sides discussed a halt to hostilities and the requirements for a durable peace. But Kachin negotiators remain doubtful about any peace deal that does not address the issue of autonomy. In a statement sent to Reuters, the KIA said they remain distrustful of the Myanmar army, which they say has elevated its conflict with rebel soldiers to the level of “total annihilation stage.” Thein Sein and others have been hailed for their efforts to reverse decades of oppressive governance. The release of political prisoners earlier this month has led to discussions with the United States about the resumption of diplomatic relations. Ahead of April’s by-elections, others are even contemplating the potential lifting of economic sanctions. But peace in the country’s long-embattled ethnic regions must be the first priority. The government must not wipe a wet floor beneath a running tap. While many have acknowledged that reform efforts have borne some fruit, doubts remain about the government’s sincerity. The ethnic issue in Myanmar is central to the resolution of all socio-political issues. Unless the ethnic issue is properly addressed, and until the rights of ethnic populations are respected and preserved, lasting peace in Myanmar may never become a reality. There can be no winners in the fighting in Kachin state. As long as hostilities continue to shatter the lives of residents across the region, and as long as fear and mistrust of the government remain, then the nation will be the loser. Fr Paul Lum Dau is a pastoral project coordinator in Myitkyina diocese who provides assistance and counseling to Kachin refugees

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