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Distrust still simmers beneath peace overtures in Myanmar

MYITKYINA (UCAN): Since an outbreak of fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shattered a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement in June last year, tens of thousands of villagers in the ethnic region have been forced to flee their homes and seek tenuous shelter in makeshift camps near the country’s border with China.

Father Paul Wanghte Lum Dau, the pastoral project coordinator for Mytkyina diocese in the northern state of Kachin in the Union of Myanmar, says that the exact numbers of refugees are difficult to come by.

He explains that the population is fluctuating and it is not possible to keep tabs on the displaced people who have taken refuge across the border in China to stay with friends or family.

Nevertheless, after more than six months fighting, sources in Kachin state put the number of displaced people at more than 50,000.

However, Father Dau says that this does not include thousands of rural residents, mostly farmers, who have received little assistance from the relief programmes operating in the area.

The focus of relief efforts has remained fixed on dislocation in urban areas, while farmers and others in dire need continue to suffer the consequences of the disruption in the sowing and harvesting of their crops.

Many in areas affected by fighting have either been prevented from planting, or forced to flee their farms just as the crops have ripened for harvest.

But farmers are not the only ones feeling the effects of months of widespread fighting.

Many residents of urban areas in Bhamo district rely on access to overland trade routes to Laiza, Mandalay and elsewhere. 

As many of these routes have become battlegrounds in past months, small business owners have lost their principal source of income.

Displaced people, who have managed to seek shelter in camps, Churches or other urban locations have received some assistance from various sources, but many others have largely been left to fend for themselves, particularly those who have crossed the border into China.

There are an estimated 5,000 Kachin in six camps in China, where sources say Chinese authorities have done little to address the growing shortage of food, water and access to basic health care.

Church organisations have stretched themselves to provide for refugees, but lack the funds and supplies to make a substantial contribution.

Women, children and people of advanced age are among the most vulnerable groups affected by displacement. Many did not survive the attempted journeys from their homes to the relative safety of camps or other refuges.

Complicating matters in the Kachin state further are ongoing peace talks and the broader efforts to reform society under the president, Thein Sein, who issued a general order to the Myanmar army in December to cease hostilities in the Kachin state.

Despite this, government troops have yet to withdraw. Moreover, peace talks between the government and the KIA have not seen any tangible results.

Myanmar’s industry minister, Aung Thaung, headed a peace delegation in early January that met with KIA representatives in the Chinese border town of Ruili, where the two sides discussed a halt to hostilities and the requirements for a durable peace.

But Kachin negotiators remain doubtful about any peace deal that does not address the issue of autonomy.

In a statement sent to Reuters, the KIA says it remains distrustful of the Myanmar army, which it maintains has elevated the conflict with rebel soldiers to what they term the total annihilation stage.

Thein Sein and others have been hailed for their efforts to reverse decades of oppressive governance. The release of political prisoners earlier this month has led to discussions with the United States of America about the resumption of diplomatic relations.

Ahead of April’s by-elections, other western nations are even contemplating the potential lifting of economic sanctions.

But peace in the country’s long-embattled ethnic regions must be the first priority. 

Father Dau says, “The government cannot dry a wet floor while the tap is still running.”

While many have acknowledged that reform efforts have borne some fruit, doubts remain about the government’s sincerity. The ethnic issue in Myanmar is central to the resolution of all socio-political issues.

Father Dau insists, “Unless the ethnic issue is properly addressed, and until the rights of ethnic populations are respected and preserved, lasting peace in Myanmar may never become a reality.”

He concludes, “There can be no winners in the fighting in Kachin state. As long as hostilities continue to shatter the lives of residents across the region, and as long as fear and mistrust of the government remain, then the nation will be the loser.”