09/09/2015, 00.00
MYANMAR
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As the authorities talk peace with ethnic groups, the Church helps displaced people

by Lawrence Gam, JM
Myanmar’s president met a delegation of ethnic leaders for talks, hoping to see peace by the November elections. Among Kachin and Shan refugees, the situation is increasingly critical. Food supplies are at risk, and thousands of children and youth might not be able to go to school. The local Caritas and Church are in the forefront of relief efforts.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – Myanmar authorities and representatives of the country’s ethnic minorities have resumed talks in connection with an expected ceasefire. Meanwhile, the fate of refugees in combat zones, especially in Kachin and Shan states, is deteriorating, a situation made that much worse by cuts in aid.

President Thein Sein met with representatives of ethnic groups today in Naypyidaw, urging them to sign a ceasefire before the national general elections, scheduled for 8 November. He also met with representatives of five rebel groups who have accepted talks out of the dozen or so that have been fighting the government.

Despite the meetings, the government and rebel groups still disagree over exactly who should sign the ceasefire. Many rebels want the inclusion of several groups not recognised by the authorities that are still fighting the government.

In a country of about 135 ethnic groups, peaceful coexistence has always been a struggle, especially with the central government, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese.

In the past, the ruling military junta used an iron fist against the groups least amenable to central control, like ethnic Kachin, who live along the border with China in the north, and more recently, ethnic Kokang in Shan state, where the president imposed a state of emergency.

In Kachin State, fighting between the Myanmar military and Kachin forces resumed in June 2011 after 17 years of relative calm. Since then, scores of civilians have died and almost 100,000 people forced into 160 refugee camps.

In view of the situation, the country’s Catholic bishops issued a plea for a lasting solution to the conflict. Indeed, the Catholic Church and the local Caritas, which have played a leading role in delivering aid, said that things are at a “critical” stage, so much so that Mgr Raymond Sumlut Gam, bishop of Bhamo and president of Caritas Myanmar, called on international agencies, people of good will and Catholics throughout the world to provide “concrete help”.

This comes at a time as the situation in Kachin State and the northern part of Shan State has worsened. Complicating matters, the government has stopped humanitarian workers from travelling to areas under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Since fighting broke out, the Karuna Myanmar Social Services (KMSS) - Caritas Myanmar has provided assistance to at least 75 per cent of displaced people in the two regions as well as food to more than 40,000 people in 40 camps under the control of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO).

Speaking to the Burmese paper Irrawaddy last June, Fr Paul Awng Dang, KMSS head in Bhamo, said that the rainy season had cause havoc, wiping out temporary housing used by refugees.

As the security situation deteriorated, donors have cut back because, resulting in a 20 per cent reduction to what goes to displaced Kachin. In fact, food rations have declined in government-controlled areas as well, threatening displaced people’s food security.

As if the food problem situation was not enough, the education opportunities for 15,000 children and teenagers have been restricted in KIO-controlled areas.

For example, students from schools in KIO-controlled areas have not been able to take university entrance exams for the past four years. As a result, almost 1,500 displaced young people have seen their dream of a higher education vanish.

Mary Rose, programme manager for the KMSS Emergency Response, noted that Caritas Internationalis was among the first to respond to the appeal launched by the bishop of Bhamo to raise funds for the Kachin.

However, as fighting between the military continues, the number of displaced people grow by the day. Without a peace agreement, things will continue to deteriorate with devastating consequences.

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