Myanmar's President Win Myint (right), State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi (center) and Vice President Henry Van Thio attend the opening ceremony of the fourth 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on Aug. 19. (Photo: Thet Aung/AFP)
For most of the displaced people forced to flee their homes due to fighting in conflict-torn northern Myanmar, they never thought they would spend years in makeshift camps.
While awaiting the outcome of peace talks and seeking a prospect of returning home, thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) have spent nine years in the camps.
Since 2011, more than 100,000 people have been forced into 167 IDP camps in parts of Kachin and Shan states that are variously controlled by government and non-government forces as a result of fighting between Myanmar’s military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) after the end of a 17-year truce.
Fighting has plagued the mountainous northern region since Myanmar gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Most of Kachin’s 1.7 million people are Christians including 116,000 Catholics.
Despite the fighting intensifying in conflict-torn Rakhine in western Myanmar, the guns have fallen silent in most of northern Myanmar in the last two years. The military and the KIA are in negotiations to sign a ceasefire.
Kachin bishops from Myitkyina, Banmaw and Lashio dioceses have appealed to the international community to help the Church’s plan for IDPs’ return and resettlement.
In a joint statement signed by five Kachin bishops in early August, they stressed the guiding principles in their response — human dignity, the right of IDPs to return to their places of origin at their own volition, and people’s right to quality services.
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw, chairman of Caritas (Karuna) Myanmar, said the Church is encouraging IDPs to return to their villages where they are deemed safe.
He said the long years of staying in camps have affected the psychological, social and education well-being of children of the IDPs.
“If they sit and wait for news of getting peace, they might end up spending most of their time in the camps, so we encourage them to think properly and make the right decision,” Bishop Gam told UCA News.
The Kachin bishop said he acknowledges there are villages where it is not safe for return. He said some IDPs have chosen new resettlement areas and some have decided to stay with their relatives in townships instead of going back to their villages.
“The Church stands ready to do accompaniment, healthcare, education and livelihood support following the return of IDPs,” Bishop Gam said.
Around 6,000 people have already returned to their villages, according to the bishop.
Caritas Myanmar has been stepping up its resettlement plan for IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan states for the last two years.
Bishop Gam said the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), which also plays a vital role in providing humanitarian assistance to IDPs, has followed the plan of the Catholic Church and they have already started community mobilization from village level.
Meanwhile, fear of Covid-19 has prompted many IDPs to move to the safety of remote areas and villages, and they seek “resilience through return,” according to Bishop Gam.
Myanmar convened a fourth session of the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyitaw from Aug. 19-21 in the last round of talks under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, aiming to bring peace to seven ethnic states that have experienced vast and bitter conflicts for nearly 70 years.
The conference was delayed as the peace process had been stalled since 2018.
Little progress to reach a deal has been made and Suu Kyi has fallen short in her attempt to bring all 20 militia groups to the table.
The KIA from a Christian stronghold in northern Myanmar and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is an alliance of seven ethnic armed groups, were absent from the three-day conference after citing Covid-19 restrictions.
The Arakan Army, which is also part of the alliance group and is engaged in a conflict with the military, was excluded from the list of invitations as the government designated it as a terrorist organization.
Suu Kyi said in her opening conference speech on Aug. 19 that one reason for having a lack of trust is because of the absence of the willingness to “give and take” and compromise.
“It is important to show practically that it could be beneficial for the Union by exercising ‘give and take’ and compromise,” she said.
“Peace building is more meaningful than the silence of gunfire, bomb explosions and armed clashes.”
The grievances of the minority groups reach back seven decades, underpinning just why Myanmar’s ethnic groups see such a tough road ahead despite a concerted effort by the government.
Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, reached an agreement giving autonomy to the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups in 1947, but the deal was never fulfilled. After the 1947 conference, Aung San was assassinated and the ethnic groups took up arms against the central government.
Since then, minority ethnic people from Myanmar’s seven states have long called for what Aung San agreed on — a system based on federalism and autonomy. The rights of minority groups have been neglected during the decades-long rule of the Bamar majority’s iron-fisted military.