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Churches shelter civilians fleeing Myanmar military ultimatum

Residents in mining area told to leave or risk being linked to rebel group

Churches shelter civilians fleeing Myanmar military ultimatum

A file image of Myanmar troops boarding a military helicopter in Muse located in Shan State of Myanmar near China's border on Nov. 25, 2016. The military have told people living near gold and amber mines in an area of Kachin State that they must move or they will be considered linked to the rebel Kachin Independence Army. (Photo by Ko Sai/AFP)

Hundreds of civilians have fled their homes and are seeking refuge in churches in Myanmar's conflict-torn Kachin State following an ultimatum given by the country's military.

Church social workers say that more than 600 civilians, mostly Christians, are taking refuge in Catholic and Baptist church buildings in Tanai township, some 200 kilometers north of the state capital of Myitkyina.

The military air dropped letters on June 5 warning residents to leave the area around Tanai by June 15. If civilians remained, they would consider them to have links with the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the letters said.

The Rev. Je Di, pastor of the local Kachin Baptist Church, has reported clashes between the KIA and military. "Children, elderly and women are severely affected by the renewed fighting," he told ucanews.com.

The region has gold and amber mines that are concentrated near Tanai and where an estimated 100,000 people work. Most of them are Bamar Buddhists from central Myanmar, according to local sources.

Bum Hkrang, humanitarian aid coordinator of the Kachin Baptist Convention, told ucanews.com the military want the newly displaced people sheltering in churches taken to Kaung Ra village,  16 kilometers from Tanai. However, the village is not safe as three civilians were recently injured there by mortar shells, Bum Hkrang said.

"The military does not want the international community seeing any new internally displaced people camps in the town," said Bum Hkrang.

About 1,500 civilians, mostly Bamar, also remain trapped in the area that the military want vacated as it has blocked the local travel route on a tributary linking the Chindwin River, reports said.

Tsa Ji, general secretary of the Kachin Development Networking Group, a civil society organization that monitors development projects in Kachin State, sees the latest military offensive about being who controls resources.

"The military sees tax from the gold and amber mines as being the main source of money for the KIA," Tsa Ji told ucanews.com.

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Tsa Ji said the military's clearance operations will result in more than 100,000 workers becoming unemployed. The state is also rich in jade, timber and other gemstones.


Military remains a strong political force

San Awng, a member of the Peace-Talk Creation Group in Kachin State that frequently mediates negotiations between the KIA and the military, said the renewed fighting is the military's attempt to take control of the mines.

"The military wants to control it and they want to clear out the KIA so their cronies can come to do business there," San Awng, a Kachin Catholic, told ucanews.com.

San Awng said that the latest clashes could undermine the peace process. It only builds further distrust between the government and the KIA, he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi's government took office in April 2016 after wining elections in November the year before. But the military, which ruled the country for more than 50 years, still remains a strong political force.

The civilian government faces the daunting task of managing the country's resources which includes dealing with firms that have close ties with the military.

Suu Kyi's government has pledged to bring an end to the decades-long civil wars in the country but renewed clashes have undermined her peace initiatives. Ongoing fighting has also raised questions on how much influence Suu Kyi has over the military.

Kachin State is 90 percent Christian, and has been beset by sporadic fighting for several decades. More than 100,000 people remain displaced since fighting restarted on June 9, 2011.

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