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Displaced Myanmar Catholics seek to return home

Thousands of refugees currently living in camps hope to go back to their villages in Kachin State as peace beckons

Displaced Myanmar Catholics seek to return home

Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, (center) attends the 72nd Kachin State day ceremony in Myitkyina, upper Myanmar on Jan. 10. STR/AFP

Mary Khon Ra, a displaced Kachin woman, submitted her family’s names to the government last October applying to go back to her village in conflict-stricken Kachin State in northern Myanmar.

Khon Ra, 46, hopes she can return to her native village to start a new life after having lived in the St. Paul camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, for nearly nine years.

“In the camps, we mainly rely on aid and the children have no future, so we are yearning to go home,” says Khon Ra, a widow and mother of four.

She was forced to flee her home in October 2011 due to fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and took refuge in the camp run by the Church.

The government told them that they don’t push IDPs into returning home and that people need to decide themselves, she said, adding that she remains unsure whether she should go back.

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“Our main concern is security. The growing drug use in my village is another concern, especially for my sons.”

Khon Ra is among more than 3,000 people belonging to 60 Catholic families in the camp near Myitkyina who submitted their names under a government resettlement scheme.

In June, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement drew up a plan to close all IDP camps in Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and Karen states.

The Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC), comprising several churches, has met with the government and the KIA to determine which areas the IDPs can be safely returned to.

Aid groups warn that conditions must be safe before they can return home and that they must return of their own volition.

Church support for returned IDPs

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 bilateral ceasefire.

Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw, chairman of Caritas (Karuna) Myanmar, the Church’s social arm, said tentative peace in the region may pave the way for IDPs to go home.

Caritas Myanmar has also been stepping up its resettlement plan for IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan states.

The bishop said over 3,000 people have already returned to their villages in Banmaw and the Catholic Church supports livelihood and education programs.

“The Church encourages them to return home when it is deemed safe and we will provide food and other programs in collaboration with agencies,” Bishop Gam told UCA News.

He said the closing down of IDP camps and resettlement program mainly depend on the results of talks between the government, military and ethnic armed groups.

“There is a prospect for thousands of IDPs to return if the peace process goes smoothly,” said Bishop Gam.

Landmines pose threat to safe return

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.

Fighting has plagued the mountainous northern region since the nation gained its independence from Britain in 1948. Most of Kachin’s 1.7 million people are Christians including 116,000 Catholics.

Maria Ja Taung, a displaced Kachin in St. Paul camp, will have to remain there as her village is not deemed safe for IDPs to return.

Ja Taung said she wants to go back home as her family has also been in the camp for nearly nine years. “Landmines near our village are the main concern for a safe return,” Ja Taung told ucanews.

Ja Taung fled Gadayan village near Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, when fighting intensified in June 2011.

She hopes to see more developments from peace talks in 2020. “I pray that God will bring peace to the conflict-torn Kachin region so that we can go back to our homes safely,” Ja Taung said

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