Catholic leaders of the Kachin ethnic minority
in Myanmar have high hopes that the recent visit to Myanmar by Pope Francis will aid peace efforts despite new military offensives against rebels. The resumption six years ago of the conflict, which had been dormant for 17 years, has displaced more than 100,000 people in northern Kachin and Shan States. Long-running cyclical violence in other states with large Christian populations — Chin, Karen and Kayah — has abated. But these conflicts have also left tens of thousands of people in internal displacement centers or Thai refugee camps. Tu Ja, a former leader of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), presented a two-page letter about the ethnic group’s struggle to Pope Francis on Nov. 28 during the papal visit. The letter argued that only meaningful dialogue could achieve national reconciliation. Tu Ja called for a ceasefire and noted that the Pope Francis was recognized as a global advocate for peace. Some major armed groups, such as that of Kachin, are yet to sign a national ceasefire agreement amid continuing mutual distrust. Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government was elected in 2015 with widespread support in ethnic minority regions on the back of her pledge to end 70 years of post-independence bloodshed. But, despite the strong mandate, peace has remained elusive even though talks were held in August 2016 and May 2017. The military, notwithstanding rejection by voters at the ballot box, has escalated offensives against Kachin, Shan, Palaung and Rakhine groups in Kachin, northern Shan and Rakhine States. Karen Catholic peace advocate San Awng said a new Panglong Conference
, modeled on a 1947 agreement of the same name, has not included all ethnic armies. Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, negotiated the Panglong Agreement giving autonomy to the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups, but it was never implemented. After the 1947 conference, Aung San was assassinated and the ethnic groups took up arms against the central government. San Awng told ucanews.com that the security forces still seek military solutions to dissent while ethnic groups insist on formation of a "federal" system guaranteeing minority rights.
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He added that the country’s 2008 Constitution constitutes a barrier to greater autonomy. Myanmar's ethnic minorities make up a third of the country's 51.4 million people. Many Christians live in the ethnic-based states of Chin, Kachin, Karen and Kayah in what is otherwise a predominately Buddhist country. Tu Ja, who is now chairman of the Kachin State Democracy Party
, remains optimistic over peace initiatives arising from the papal visit. But the military continues to dominate Myanmar's "transition" to democracy through reservation for its members of 25 per cent of parliamentary seats and key ministries. And this is the NLD's problem — the military is largely beyond the government’s control.