An ethnic Kachin family pictured at the Baptist Church-run Ja Maing Kaung camp for internally displaced persons near Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, in April 2017. (ucanews.com photo)
With the sound of gunfire mostly absent in Myanmar's northern Kachin State, after the army unilaterally implemented a partial ceasefire in late December to promote peace talks with local militias, those displaced by the conflict say they want to go home.
Myanmar's military paved the way for further negotiations with various rebel groups in the north during the cessation of fighting, which has a deadline of April 30.
The order covers the war-torn regions of Kachin and Shan states, which has forced thousands to flee their homes and seek refuge at camps for internally displaced people (IDP).
Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam, chairman of Caritas Myanmar, said many of the IDPs have been at the camps for seven years or more, and are losing hope of heading home.
"The Church's stance is to encourage them to return to their villages, but only if they are deemed to be safe," said Bishop Gam, who serves as the bishop of Kachin's Banmaw Diocese, told ucanews.com.
NGOs say that any who choose to go back must do so voluntarily.
Caritas, or Karuna, Myanmar is the Church's social arm. It has been stepping up its resettlement plan for IDPs in both states.
An elderly Kachin man takes a breather at the Catholic Church-run Ja Maing Kaung IDP camp in this 2017 file photo. (ucanews.com photo)
Praying for peace
La Dee, an IDP in Kachin, said Christian leaders have had talks with the government as well as the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethno-political group of which the KIA serves as its armed wing, about getting more people out of the camps and back into their former homes.
He said most are desperate to rebuild their lives.
"Security is our main concern," said the Kachin Baptist. "We will only go home if our security is guaranteed."
La Dee fled his home in 2011 due to fighting between the military and the KIA and took refuge at a camp run by the Kachin Baptist Convention in Kachin's Momauk township.
In the last eight years over 100,000 people have taken shelter at 167 IDP camps in both states, parts of which are variously controlled by government and non-governmental forces.
Conflict has plagued this 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.
The Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC), comprising several Christian churches, has met with the KIO to determine which areas the IDPs can be safely returned to.
Rev. Hkalam Samson, head of the committee, said the group has compiled a list of 200 "safe" villages that will be presented to the government's National Reconciliation and Peace Centre in April for consideration.
"We won't know the final plan until a month after our meeting with the government officials," said Rev. Samson, who also serves as president of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).
During a meeting with the KBC in February, Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing said the army would cooperate with the KIO to clear landmines in the region to literally pave the way for their return.
Soldiers march in a formation during a parade to mark the country's 74th Armed Forces Day in Naypyidaw, Myanmar on March 27. (Photo by Thet Aung/AFP)
The KIA has around 4,000 active soldiers, mostly near the Chinese border. It has yet to join a nationwide ceasefire agreement signed by 10 of Myanmar's 20 biggest armed groups.
Talks have broken down repeatedly since the previous ceasefire in 2011.
On March 21, government negotiators met delegates from armed ethnic groups including the Arakan Army and tried to persuade them to agree to the deal. Little headway was made save an agreement to hold more talks.
San Awng is a Kachin Catholic and a member of the Peace Talk Creating Group in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. He said the main goal of the talks at this point is trust building.
The KIO has proposed two more meetings in April but has yet to receive an official reply, he said.
"Their first priority is signing a bilateral ceasefire with the military and then implement the return of the IDPs. After that, they can focus on the NCA," he said.
The government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to end the decades-long conflict in the country but has not yet found a way to quell the bloody outbreaks in ethnic regions of Rakhine and Shan states.