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Myanmar bishop upbeat on IDPs returning home

Bishop Gam is confident that peace talks between the govt and armed groups will succeed

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Myanmar bishop upbeat on IDPs returning home

A worker cleans the vandalized statue of Myanmar independence hero General Aung San in Myitkyina, capital of Kachin State, in July 2018 after paint was splashed on it. The vandalism came after six days of peace talks in capital Naypyidaw aimed at bringing ethnic groups into a ceasefire accord. (Photo by Zau Ring Hpra/AFP)

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Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw in Myanmar’s conflict-stricken Kachin State expects continuing dialogue between the military and Kachin rebels will pave the way for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return to their homes.

The government, military and armed ethnic groups including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are in negotiations to end fighting.

Myanmar’s military announced a unilateral ceasefire in Kachin and Shan states on Dec. 21, 2018, and it was extended three times until Sept. 21 this year.

Bishop Gam said no fighting has taken place in Kachin despite the lack of a ceasefire extension. “It’s a sign of hope and progress as we don’t hear gunfire,” he said.

The bishop said all armed groups appear to be pursuing dialogue to end fighting. The military and the KIA are discussing a bilateral ceasefire agreement.

“Dialogue will pave the way to ending the fighting, which would help the return of IDPs safely,” Bishop Gam told ucanews.

The bishop said the tentative peace in the conflict-torn region has raised hopes and desires for IDPs to return to their homes.

Many people have gone to their villages to observe the conditions and security. About 3,000 IDPs from Banmaw Diocese have returned to their homes this year as the area is deemed safe, according to the bishop.

“We acknowledge there are several villages where it would be very risky to return as troops are nearby,” said Bishop Gam. “The Church’s stance is to encourage people to return to their villages in certain areas where it is deemed to be safe.”

Karuna (Caritas) Myanmar, the Catholic Church’s social arm, has been stepping up its resettlement plan for IDPs in Kachin and Shan states as many people have lived in camps since June 2011.

The Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee, comprising several Christian churches, has played a greater role in negotiations with the government and the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA, to determine which areas are safe.

NGOs say that any people who choose to go back must do so voluntarily and security remains a major concern until a ceasefire is agreed between the military and the KIA.

In the last eight years, more than 100,000 people have taken shelter at IDP camps in both states, parts of which are variously controlled by government and non-government forces.

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

The KIA has yet to join a hoped-for a nationwide ceasefire agreement, which has so far only been signed by 10 of the 20 armed groups in the country.

The government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to end the decades-long conflict but has not yet found a way to bring peace to the ethnic regions of Rakhine and Shan.

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