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Myanmar bishop upbeat about peace prospects in 2020

Head of Banmaw Diocese is cautiously optimistic about China's role in ending the decades-long conflict

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Myanmar bishop upbeat about peace prospects in 2020

Armed rebels belonging to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) move towards the frontline near Laiza in Kachin state in this file photo. The KIA is in talks with Myanmar's military over signing a ceasefire agreement. (Photo: Hkun Lat/AFP)

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Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam, head of a diocese in conflict-torn Kachin state, is cautiously optimistic about China’s role in ending the conflict in Myanmar.

Bishop Gam, who oversees the border diocese of Banmaw, said China has called on all stakeholders — the government, military and ethnic armed groups — to move the peace process towards a nationwide ceasefire. The military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are in discussions to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

“I think accelerating the process will mainly depend on our neighboring giant superpower, China,” said Bishop Gam, who acknowledges Myanmar cannot deny Beijing’s role in the peace process as it exercises influence over ethnic armed groups based in territories along the border.

He said China’s aim of peace is only silenced gunfire that will pave the way for doing businesses and projects. “They only care about stability but what all our people desire is permanent peace which is based on justice,” Bishop Gam told ucanews.

Kachin state is a conflict zone and civil war has plagued the mountainous northern state intermittently since Burma, as the country was then known, gained independence from Britain in 1948. Renewed fighting in 2011 between the KIA and the Myanmar military forced more than 100,000 people into internally displaced persons’ camps in Kachin and Shan states.

Beijing is pushing Myanmar’s government, military and armed groups along its border to end fighting as stability allows for investment to proceed, including strategic infrastructure projects under China’s Belt and Road initiative and the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor.

The US-based Institute for Peace said in a September 2018 report that “China believes it deserves to have predominant presence and influence in these areas, if not elsewhere in Myanmar, regardless of the wishes or interests of Myanmar, let alone the interests of other countries.”

Furthermore, China has shielded Myanmar from international pressure and punitive action from the UN Security Council over alleged atrocities by its military against the Rohingya.

Reviving the stalled peace process

On Jan. 8, the government, military and ethnic armed groups that signed a nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) held talks to revive the stalled peace process and agreed to hold the delayed Panglong peace conference this year.

The peace process was mired in deadlock last year after two ethnic armed groups — the Karen National Union and the Restoration Council of Shan State — pulled out of the NCA.

Bishop Gam is optimistic about the peace process as there are prospects of a more positive outcome during talks in 2020. “Silenced gunfire in northern Myanmar may pave the way for continuing negotiations towards ending the conflict,” he said.

Myanmar’s de facto civilian leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, initiated what has been branded the 21st century version of the original Panglong peace conference in bringing all ethnic armed groups to the negotiating table.

Peace remains elusive as fighting continues to rage in Rakhine and Shan states, undermining Suu Kyi’s reconciliation bid.

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