09/03/2013, 00.00
MYANMAR
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Kachin state: Church and Caritas helping refugees, victims of new ethnic clashes

by Francis Khoo Thwe
The number of displaced people in this northern state remains high as the Burmese military and the local ethnic minority continue to fight each other. Local dioceses are helping thousands of people with basic necessities and children's education. Fighting has now reached the Shwe Gas Pipeline.

Yangon (AsiaNews) - The number of displaced people is "still high" and refugees enjoy "little assistance." Even UN agencies "cannot reach areas" where the situation is critical because of the restrictions imposed by the authorities, this according to Khon Ja Labang, a Catholic activist and former member of the Kachin Peace Network who has been involved in peace work in areas torn by ethnic conflict.

Speaking to AsiaNews, she said that the situation in the northern state of Kachin was critical. For the past two years, the area has been in the middle of a war between Burmese troops and local ethnic militias, a conflict that has particularly affected the civilian population with the two sides clashing again in the past week.

For their part, the Church and Catholic volunteer associations continue their work to help and comfort the tens of thousands of displaced people. In fact, the Catholic activist noted, the Karuna Myitkyina Social Service (the local branch of Caritas), the Karuna Banmaw Social Service, and the Karuna Lashio Social Service, in co-operation with other Christian organisations like the Kachin Baptist Convention, have been deeply involved in bringing aid to tens of thousands of displaced people, many of whom are housed in shelters and continue to be in need of food, water and basic necessities.

After more than two years into the latest phase of the conflict, the situation is still tragic in many places. "The development agencies of the Myitkyina, Banmaw, and Lashio dioceses work closely with field leaders, as well as associations that provide humanitarian assistance," Ms Khon Ja said.

The work of the Church, the Catholic activist said, is important, not only in providing shelter and relief, but also education to children "in coordination with the Karuna Myanmar Social Services" because children's education is important from the point of view of bringing a community back to normal.

The current fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), broke out in 2011, causing dozens of civilian casualties and displacing at least 100,000 people, mostly Kachin civilians.

The leaders of the independence movement and representatives of President Thein Sein's semi-civilian central government have met on several occasions but have failed so far to reach tangible and lasting results. A final ceasefire has yet to be worked out.

However, fighting has reached the KIO's southern division, as well as a northern area of ​​ Shan State, not far from the Shwe Gas Pipeline, a key component in the strategic energy sector.

The desperate condition of dozens of political prisoners, detained by the military on suspicion of being ethnic minority rebels has compounded the plight of Myanmar's refugees and displaced civilians.

Relatives tell stories of violence, torture and abuse in prisons by the security forces in Kachin State. At least 70 people are in prison; some have already been convicted; others are on trial for (alleged) ties with the KIO or for participation in the armed struggle.

In reality, most of them are poor farmers who have nothing to do with politics. Some are not even minority Kachin. At least 11 are ethnic Shan; several others are Nepali Gurkha or ethnic Sino-Burmese.

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