Kachin bishops meet Myanmar military chief

As fighting escalates in the north, church representatives call for finding peace through talks, not weapons
Kachin bishops meet Myanmar military chief

Kachin bishops meet Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing in Naypyidaw on Jan. 16. (Photo courtesy of Min Aung Hlaing's Facebook page)

Four Kachin bishops have met Myanmar's military chief Min Aung Hlaing to talk prospects for peace in the country's north, where fighting between the military and armed ethnic groups has intensified.

Retired Archbishop Paul Zinghtung Grawng of Mandalay and Bishops Philip Lasap Za Hawng of Lashio, Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina and Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw attended a meeting at Bayintnaung Parlor in Naypyidaw on Jan. 16.

For one hour and 45 minutes, the bishops and Min Aung Hlaing discussed the situation in Kachin and Shan states, where intense fighting has erupted in recent months between ethnic armed groups and Myanmar's military.

Since late last year, the military has conducted an offensive using airstrikes and heavy artillery, resulting in thousands of internally displaced persons fleeing their camps.

Bishop Gam said the bishops told Min Aung Hlaing about more sporadic fighting, the situation of displaced people such as their desire to return home, and the difficulty of providing humanitarian assistance to camps, especially in remote areas.

"We conveyed the message on the Catholic Church's stance of getting a durable peace through dialogue instead of arms, and the church stands ready to take part in nation building in collaboration with all stakeholders," he told ucanews.com.

Bishop Gam said the military chief reaffirmed its commitment to ending civil wars in Myanmar while opening the door to all armed ethnic groups to negotiate.

Bishop Za Hawng said the meeting was frank and constructive and he hopes the discussion may impact on the peace process in the long term.

"This is a first-time meeting between Kachin bishops and the military chief and it is a step forward for peace by meeting personally and discussing issues frankly," he told ucanews.com.

The bishops had been trying to meet with the military leader since a meeting with State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi in January 2017.

The Jan. 16 meeting, however, came two months after Pope Francis visited Myanmar and held a short meeting with the military chief on Nov. 27. The pope highlighted the importance of peace in Myanmar and a greater role for Myanmar's military in ending civil wars, according to sources.

Min Aung Hlaing told the bishops that the military does not have any problems with ethnic groups and holds peace talks with armed ethnic organizations.

"The Tatmadaw will accept the discussion of differences with these organizations. They need to have keen wishes to actually restore peace and not to break peace agreements and pledges," said Min Aung Hlaing on his Facebook page on Jan. 17.

Fighting has occurred in the Christian stronghold of Kachin State on and off since 1948 independence from British rule of what was then Burma.

Since the situation deteriorated in 2011, more than 100,000 people have been displaced. Most of the state's 1.7 million Kachins are Christians, including 116,000 Catholics.

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Suu Kyi pledged to end various decades-long civil wars in the country, but renewed clashes have undermined her peace initiatives.

The ongoing fighting has raised serious questions about how much influence Suu Kyi has over the military.

Observers say the military remains powerful in the civilian-led government and has taken up the recent offensive to put pressure on Kachin fighters to sign a ceasefire agreement.

The Kachin Independence Army has yet to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement that only eight out of 20 armed groups have signed so far.

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