Fighting between the Myanmar military and rebels has recently resumed. More than 120,000 people live in 167 refugee camps since 2011. Despite tensions, Pope Francis’s words of peace continue to echo in the country. Catholic leaders undertake initiatives of reconciliation.
Myitkyina (AsiaNews) – Two weeks after Pope Francis’s historic apostolic visit to Myanmar, Card Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, has started a visit to Kachin State.
The first Burmese cardinal arrived in the northern State where he will meet with internally displaced people (IDPs) living in a number of centres run by charities in Myitkyina, the state capital, and in several refugee camps set up as a result of the ongoing conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
During his visit, the pontiff repeatedly called for peace and reconciliation in the country, urging Catholics to reject the logic of revenge and Church leaders to "foster unity, charity and healing in the life of this nation".”
The cardinal's visit takes place at a time that the Myanmar military is engaged in an offensive against the Kachin, a mostly Christian ethnic group. The two sides have been fighting since 2011, when fresh violence ended a ceasefire signed in 1994.
The fighting has displaced more than 120,000 people, who are now living in 167 IDP camps in Kachin State. According to local leaders, the Myanmar military army usually goes on the offensive against rebel groups in Kachin and Shan in October, when the dry season beings.
This year however, operations began late, in November, against areas controlled by the KIA in the north of the state, particularly the Tanai district. Experts believe that the military is trying to maintain a lower profile due to strong pressure from the international community over the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine.
Meanwhile, the police on Wednesday raided the Myitkyina compound of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the political arm of the KIA.
The next day, the army shelled at least four KIA positions. In the Tanai area, soldiers blocked roads leading out of town, shelling nearby mining villages and dropping leaflets from helicopters ordering people to move out these areas before May.
Kachin is rich in natural resources and the Myanmar military has a keen interest in grabbing control of these areas. Jade mining areas in Hpakant are already under army control, whilst mining areas in Tanai are controlled by the KIA.
Despite fresh tensions in the north, the words of peace of Pope Francis continue to echo in Myanmar. Civil society groups, Catholic and others, continue to express joy and pride for hosting such an important event.
"Reinvigorated in their faith, Catholics are still euphoric for the meeting with the Holy Father,” said Fr Mariano Soe Naing, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Myanmar (CBCM) speaking to AsiaNews.
“The bishops and priests have increased their efforts in their pastoral work. The pope’s words on forgiveness reached the hearts of the Kachin refugees and Card Bo’s visit represents the beginning of a new impulse in the reconciliation process.
“Moreover, the northern commander, General Nyi Swe, will welcome the cardinal at the cathedral of Myitkyina. This is an important signal because it shows that the military is willing to collaborate with the Church on the path to peace."
"The pontiff’s words were appreciated everyone in Burma,” said Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Banmaw, whose diocese includes Kachin and hosts numerous displaced persons.
"The Kachin people is trying to put into practice his [the pope’s] words, which have reinforced Catholics' expectations about peace. Although there is no reconciliation at the moment, the parties in conflict are trying to hold talks.
“Together with Baptist pastors, the Catholic Church is engaged in an important work of mediation between the government, the military and armed groups, through the establishment of a Committee.”
The latter has “nine members, including leaders of various religious confessions. It has called for the parties to work together to remove the landmines so that displaced people can return safely to their communities. This is an important step that, together with Card Bo’s visit, sends a signal of hope."