05/29/2018, 10.27
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Myitkyina, thousands of Catholics march for peace and displaced Kachin used as human shields

by Lawrence Jangma Gam

Since last April, armed clashes between the army and the rebels of the Kachin Independence Army (Kia) have reignited. Internally displaced people in the region have increased by 5 thousand. 1,500 displaced persons remained trapped in the conflict area, with only 150 allowed to go to refugee camps. For nearly two months, more than 1,300 refugees have been held hostage by the army and used as human shields. The UN: "In Kachin a forgotten humanitarian crisis". Christians accuse: "There is a real genocide underway".

Myitkyina (AsiaNews) - Thousands of Catholics marched yesterday through the streets of Myitkyina, the capital of the State of Kachin, in the name of peace in Myanmar. Last May 24, the diocese published a letter inviting all citizens to the prayer march. The document made it clear that it was not a political manifestation. Yesterday, Msgr. Francis Daw Tang, bishop of the city, led the procession and prayed with the demonstrators, among whom there were also many Protestants and non-Christians. This is the first public  demonstration by Kachin Catholics for peace: he urged them to march through the streets of Myitkyina raising the alarm about their situation.

Starting last April, in the north and east of Myitkyina, the armed clashes between the Tatmadaw [the Burmese army] and the rebels of the Kachin Independence Army (Kia) were reignited. It is the ethnic army of the Kachin minority, which has a large Christian component of 40% Catholics  and 60% Baptists. Usually, villagers in areas affected by the conflict are allowed to flee and escape. However, this time the government army did not allow displaced civilians (IDPs) to save themselves. The Naypyidaw Armed Forces detained the Idp hostage near military bases, using them as human shields, so that the rebel army Kachin will not attack them.

Exponents and civil society organizations have made several attempts to rescue the people, but the commander-in-chief of the Northern troops has even prevented the intervention of the Kachin State chief minister. The only successful intervention was made by the minister for social welfare of Naypyidaw. Out of 1,500 displaced persons trapped in armed clashes, around 150 were allowed to go to refugee camps. For almost two months, more than 1,300 refugees have been held hostage by the army, under the tropical rain and the icy mountain climate. A report released by the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCA) published last month reveals that during the last phase of the conflict in Kachin, internationally displaced people in the region increased by 5,000 between April and May.

In recent weeks, various demonstrations have taken place across the country to demand the release of displaced persons. The Kachin Youth Movement has now been founded and in Myitkyina, numerous young Christians protest day and night for the release of trapped IDPs. On 9 May, the authorities brought the youth movement leaders to trial and sentenced them to pay a fine of 30 thousand kyats (about 30 US dollars). On May 16, civil rights activists met peacefully in Yangon, but government security forces arrested about 20, thanks to the intervention of violent thugs. Many of the activists are now being tried.

Representatives of the European Union in Myanmar, the United Nations and the international community have expressed concern over the arrests of peaceful demonstrators. Rallies have also been organized in other states and ethnic regions, such as the Kayah State and the Bago region. In the third week of April, the Northern military command sued three members of the Kachin Youth Movement. The trial is still ongoing and the defendants risk serious charges. Many civil rights organizations such as the Karen Women Association (Kwa), based in Thailand, are demanding that the Myanmar government intervene and stop civilian trials.

On  April 8, following a six-day mission to Myanmar, the UN Deputy Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Vice-Chancellor for Emergencies, Ursula Mueller, defined the conflict in Kachin as "a forgotten humanitarian crisis". In May, international media such as the British newspaper The Guardian defined what was taking place as "a slow genocide". In Washington, many Burmese exiles have carried out a hunger strike for the displaced trapped, reporting to the US government that a real "genocide of Christians" is taking place in Myanmar.

During the military operations under way since April, government troops have bombed Kachin rebel cities such as Laiza and Maija Yang. Furthermore, the Myanmar government continues to impose severe restrictions on humanitarian aid for the population. Despite the tensions, in the first week of May the Burmese bishops went to the Vatican on an ad limina visit. The Kachin prelates  expressed their concern for the displaced and the peace in Myanmar also in a meeting with the Vatican secretary of state and the French government, during the subsequent visit to the Marian shrine of Lourdes.

The bishops of Northern Myanmar issue a declaration every year to ask for peace in the country. However, the Commission for Justice and Peace of the Episcopal Conference (CBCM) does not usually make official statements on the Kachin question. For this reason, Card. Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon and the first cardinal of Myanmar, is often criticized by Kachin Catholic communities around the world. They accuse him of being more interested in the humanitarian emergency affecting the Rohingya Muslims, compared to the suffering of the persecuted and displaced Kachin Christians.

Bordering China and India, the Kachin State was shaken by a resumption of the conflict between army and rebels in 2011, when a bilateral ceasefire agreement lasting 17 years broke down. The clashes have caused hundreds of deaths about 150 thousand displaced, most of them Christians, who still live in desperate conditions in the refugee camps of the region. The Burmese population and that of the Shan ethnic group are instead spared from the actions of the army. For this reason, many international personalities believe that behind this conflict there is an ethnic-religious motive against the Christian minority Kachin.

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