Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina in conflict-torn Kachin State has warned Myanmar's military not to reinforce its troops in ethnic areas in the lead-up to a planned peace conference. Bishop Tang
said there needed to be a halt to fighting to allow dialogue. He added that civilians, Kachin rebels and soldiers had all suffered hardship and lost lives unnecessarily in the long-running conflict. The 69-year-old bishop said that amid a lull in clashes, about 300 displaced people
had returned to their villages in the Ingyanyang township area. In January, four Kachin bishops met Myanmar military chief Min Aung Hlaing to talk about prospects for peace in the country's north. But Myanmar's military stepped up offensive operations in Kachin in early April by launching attacks against the secessionists using heavy artillery, helicopters and jet fighters. The Uinted Nations says more than 7,400 people were displaced by fighting in eight townships — including Tanai, Ingyanyang and Hpakant — in April alone. They have since been sheltering at Catholic and Baptist churches. Renewed fighting erupted in 2011 following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire and more than 120,000 people have fled to 179 internally displaced persons' camps in Kachin and neighboring Shan state. Most of Kachin's 1.7 million people are Christians, including 116,000 Catholics. Bishop Tang told ucanews.com that stakeholders needed to compromise in order to reduce clashes and implement provisions of the 1947 Panglong agreement — between the national government and Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups — covering self-determination and minority rights. If both sides clung to their demands, there may not be tangible results from peace talks, Bishop Tang said. Myanmar's de facto civilian leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, initiated what has been branded as a 21st century version of the original Panglong peace conference to be held in the capital, Naypyitaw, from July 11-16. Many ethnic armed groups are expected to attend. The Kachin Independence Army
(KIA) has yet to join a hoped-for nationwide ceasefire agreement that has only been signed so far by 10 out of 20 armed groups. Suu Kyi pledged to end various decades-long civil conflicts in the country and held peace talks in August 2016 and May 2017, but renewed clashes undermined the reconciliation bid. Ongoing fighting has raised serious questions about how much sway Suu Kyi has over the military.
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In June, Bishop Tang visited about 5,000 newly displaced people at Catholic churches in Tangphre, Lewa, Namti townships. "People ask me when they can go back to their homes as they long for peace," Bishop Tang said. "I encourage them not to lose hope and to keep a deep faith in God."