COMMENTARY – Fallout – Displaced civilians in Kachin State continue to suffer
The escalating conflict in Kachin State has disproportion ally affected the most disadvantaged and internally displaced people (IDPs) already forced out of their homes by fighting are now facing an even bleaker future.
According to September 2016 UN estimates there were about 87,000 IDPs in Kachin State, 42,000 of those in areas controlled by armed groups or contested areas, with the remaining 45,000 in government-controlled areas. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that 17,400 more people were displaced in Kachin and northern Shan states between October and mid-December 2016.
The Joint Strategy Team (JST), a group of Kachin and Shan humanitarian associations estimate that the fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government forces has displaced over 120,000 civilians.
The situation for IDPs worsened in 2016 as they faced reductions in supplies due to cuts in aid budgets. Things were made far worse when, in August 2016, the army allegedly started blocking aid and medicine from reaching Kachin IDP camps in both government and Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) controlled areas.
On 25 August the Army reportedly stopped a Kachin Babtist Convention (KBC) vehicle carrying over 10 million kyats (approx. $8,200) worth of medical supplies, donated by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA), to IDP camps near the Chinese border in Kachin State. The army refused to let the vehicle past and took all the medical supplies.
At the beginning of September the army also prevented four trucks loaded with rice, cooking oil and beans donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) from leaving Namhkam to go to Man Win IDP Camp in Kachin State.
On 18 October soldiers prevented members of the Hpakant based Green Land environmentalist civil
society group from delivering food supplies to IDPs in nearby Jahtu Zup Village.
The soldiers said they were confiscating the supplies because they believed they were going to Kachin Independence Army (KIA) forces rather than IDPs.The Kachin State Security and Border Affairs Minister, an army officer, agreed with them and refused to return the supplies.
According to the JST the government has issued a letter saying that aid agencies must get prior permission from the state government before they can take aid to IDP camps in both government and non-government controlled areas of Kachin and northern Shan State.
According to a JST statement released in October 2016: [The] Myanmar Tatmadaw [Army] consistently hinders food transportation to the most needed area[s] in Kachin State. This is an outright violation against the rights of the IDPs and a breach of the IHL [International Humanitarian Law].”
The situation became so bad that on 1 December a group of Myanmar and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) released a statement calling for: “[The] removal of all impediments and restrictions, formal or informal, to the movement of humanitarian aid including personnel, goods and services to ensure timely response to humanitarian needs.”
The statement also pointed out that the lack of aid was negatively affecting IDPs. It said: “IDPs have resorted to developing negative coping mechanisms, such as severely reducing food intake and taking on dangerous and high risk jobs, leading to migration and employment in unregulated and illegal activities.”
Even the US embassy in Myanmar condemned the restriction of aid to IDPs. A 12 December statement condemning the violence in Kachin and northern Shan state said: “[We] urge immediate, unfettered humanitarian access to all those affected by conflict throughout the country.”
In December the situation for IDPs in Kachin State worsened as fighting intensified. During December the Myanmar Army launched offensives against the KIA bases of Gidon and Lai Hpawng.
The fighting was intense, with the Army launching air strikes. Mortar shells started landing close to the nearby IDP camps of Zai Awng, Maga Yang and Hkau Shau, terrifying and traumatising the residents. As the fighting got worse the situation in the IDP camps became chaotic as some IDPs started running away from the camps, while the rest readied themselves in case they had to leave at short notice.
Ms Yanghee Lee, the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, who visited the country from 9 to 20 January, said that she had met a family from Zai Awng IDP Camp with four children, including one a few months old and another aged two who had been forced to flee from the camp into the forest because of the shelling. There they dug a hole in which they slept for six nights as they tried to raise the funds to leave the area.
On 27 December shells finally fell directly on Zai Awng Camp, which caused the remaining IDPs to flee immediately. Most sheltered two or three miles away and tried to collect their belongings from the camp the next day.
According to the JST the re-displaced Zai Awng IDPs are now temporarily sheltering at three locations next to the road in the Lungbyen area, where they are constructing tents from tarpaulin to try and protect themselves against the winter cold.
The JST also said that since the fall of the Gidon and Lai Hpawng out posts security at the Maga Yang camp has been severely compromised and the IDPs there are also preparing to move to safer places.
After fierce fighting erupted in the Nagyang area, close to Zai Awng and Hkau Shau camps on 10 January more than 4,000 IDPs, including 800 children, fled to the Chinese border and tried to cross into China.
On 10 January more than 4,000 IDPs, including 800 children, originally from Zai Awng, Maga Yang and Hkau Shau camps fled to the Chinese border and tried to cross into China.
According to the human rights organisation Fortify Rights initially the Chinese authorities allowed the first IDPs to cross when they arrived at 4am on 11 January, but just after dawn they started turning back the IDPs and forcibly returned those who had already crossed.
According to the JST many of the IDPs who were turned back at the border then headed for Laiza.
The situation does not look as if it will improve soon for the Kachin IDPs and one can but feel sorry for them.
As Ms Yanghee Lee said in her end of mission statement on 20 January: “These people have done nothing wrong, yet they suffer, merely because they live in an area, where others fight.”
“These people have done nothing wrong, yet they suffer, merely because they live in an area, where others fight.”