Monasteries become safe zones in Myanmar conflict

Thousands displaced by fresh fighting in Shan state, the latest outbreak in the battle weary nation
Monasteries become safe zones in Myanmar conflict

Students who fled homes due to the fighting in Shan state studying for their final exams at a monastery in Kyaukme township. (Photo curtesy of Karuna Lashio)

Thousands of people have taken shelter in Buddhist monasteries in the north of Myanmar's restive Shan state after fresh fighting broke out late last year.

Aid groups said that more than 4,000 ethnic Shan and Palung have been displaced and have taken refuge in 19 monasteries in Shan's Kyaukme township due to the hostilities between the Restoration Council of Shan State and the Ta'ang National Liberation Army in early February.

The conflict is the latest to mar the monthlong transition from the military-backed government to a new civilian government following Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy victory in last year's November election.

Instances of fighting also have occurred or continues in ethnic areas such as Shan, Kachin and Rakhine states and which is seen to undermine the country's peace process.

Lama Naw Aung, a Catholic and lower house member of parliament from Kachin State's Democracy Party, said it is time for ending hostilities in ethnic areas and for bringing peace in the country that has grappled with a series of decadeslong civil wars.

"Ethnic armed groups should come to the negotiation table and find ways to solve the cause for the fighting. Fighting is not the solution and instead they need to negotiate openly and frankly for ceasefire," Lama Naw Aung told ucanews.com on Feb 22.

It remains unclear what initially triggered the fighting that began last November.

The Restoration Council of Shan state signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement last October but the Ta'ang National Liberation Army didn't sign it.

Both sides have blamed one another for the renewed fighting in Shan state.

However, some observers see the fighting as relating to the nationwide cease-fire agreement.

Shay Ray Shu Maung, a Catholic and upper house lawmaker from Suu Kyi's party in Kayah state, said clashes often erupt in ethnic areas, which highlights the country's fragile peace process.

"If equal rights are neglected in ethnic areas, fighting will continue. So all concerned parties really need to discuss peace through mutual cooperation," Shan Ray Shu Maung told ucanews.com Feb. 22.

Tensions remain high in Shan state, while the numbers of displaced have been increasing in monasteries in Kyaukme township, according to aid workers.

Karuna Lashio, the Catholic Church's social arm in the Lashio Diocese, entered refugee camps in mid-February and carried out an assessment of the people.

"There are enough food items and clothes for internally displaced people so far due to active participation of local donors and civil society groups. But they would need shelter if people stay in the monasteries for long as they can't go back to their homes in the present situation," Eddie, project manager for Karuna Lasio, told ucanews.com on Feb. 22.

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Karuna is still closely monitoring the situation and would provide humanitarian response if the refugees  stay longer, he said.

The National League for Democracy party has vowed to prioritize peace in the divided counter,y which has suffered several internal conflicts since gaining independence from Britain in 1948.

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