More Kachin Refugees Increase, Int’l NGOs Denied Access

source from Irrawaddy news, 8 Dec 2011

The Burmese government continues to deny the UN and international aid organizations access to war refugees in conflict zones in Kachin State, northern Burma, where thousands of local villagers have been displaced by fierce fighting between government troops and Kachin rebels.

Local relief workers estimate that there are more than 34,000 war refugees in the town of Laiza, which hosts the headquarters of the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the militia that has engaged the Burmese army for the past six months.

At least 7,000 local civilians were displaced in the first week of December from 30 villages in the townships of Momauk, Waimaw and Bamaw, all of which are close to the Sino-Burmese border, as clashes intensify between the two sides, according to local aid groups.

“No international aid has arrived in those areas,” said La Rip, an official with the Kachin Development Group, speaking by phone from Laiza on Thursday. “I don’t understand why the government is blocking aid for these refugees. As far as I know, the KIA has said it will guarantee the security of aid officials if they come here.”

His organization and other local Christian aid groups have been assisting the refugees in the region since hostilities broke out in June after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese army and the KIA, a nationalist Kachin militia that has demanded autonomy for predominantly Christian Kachin State for decades.

Nearly two months ago, Naypyidaw permitted the World Food Program (WFP) and Oxfam to distribute food to refugees in government-controlled areas of Kachin State.

WFP has so far delivered food assistance to about 10,000 displaced people in Kachin State—250 tons of food making up three-month family rations, according to Marcus Prior, the organization’s Asia spokesman in an interview with The Irrawaddy.

“Should access improve for assessments and distributions, WFP is preparing for the possibility of an increased level of assistance,” he said, but also revealed that without new funding WFP is facing a break in its food supplies for its Burma operation in February which would negatively impact its ability to respond to the situations in Kachin and southern Chin State.

The Burmese government is yet to give broader access to these international organizations to attend to refugees in KIA-controlled areas.

“We cook rice with bamboo shoots during the rainy season,” a refugee was quoted as saying in Thursday’s Eleven Weekly journal. “But now that the rains are gone and bamboo shoots are no longer available, we are living on the bark of young bamboo trees. But still, shelter and clothing are what we most need.”

The report also quoted a local aid volunteer in Bamaw Township as saying: “New refugee camps in the jungles were built just a few days ago. But there is still not enough space for all the refugees. Some camps have no roofs at all while some have their roofs made only with leaves.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who recently visited Burma, stressed to the Burmese government leadership the importance of giving aid groups access to the conflict zones. On the other hand, there are also accusations from locals that the international aid organizations are not doing enough in this crisis.

“These groups are more concerned about their relations with the Burmese government than helping and advocating for the refugees,” complained a local resident in Kachin State, highlighting the difficult position of international aid groups in the country which attempt to implement their projects in a non-confrontational mode and are mostly obliged to turn a blind eye to any sensitive issue, even though it may beg humanitarian urgency.

“The most effective approach appears to be through exploring needs and issues together with officials, with no confrontation and no blame, just looking for ways to meet needs together,” said an interviewee who explained the relation of NGOs with the Burmese government in a 2010 research conducted by Daekin University in Australia.

The situation has remained much unchanged despite the country’s recent tentative political and economic reforms. And the future of the refugees looks bleak because of the ongoing armed clashes in this strategic region near the China border, and the growing numbers of displaced persons affected by the conflict.

Col. Zau Raw, a KIA official in Laiza, confirmed on Thursday that fierce fighting against government units continues to date in several areas of Kachin State and northeastern Shan State.

“There have been 50 armed clashes in the past week alone, and heavy fighting is still going on in Momauk Township and Sadong area in Waingmaw Township,” he said.

Describing the latest conflict situation, a source close to the front-line battle area wrote in an email that “Three Burma army columns comprising over 600 soldiers that have been maneuvering in the Sadong and Hkambati areas [in Kachin State] have been engaged by the KIA. Two of the columns were decimated with hundreds of casualties, and they are now retreating in complete disarray.”

The clashes continued despite the fact that both sides had their fourth round of peace talks late last month. Zau Raw is one of the KIA’s high-ranking officials who participated in those negotiations face-to-face in China’s border town of Ruili with a delegation of Burmese government ministers led by Aung Min, the minister of railways and special representative of President Thein Sein.

The Naypyidaw delegation laid out a list of promises in Riuli, including economic development in Kachin State, allowing the KIA to re-establish liaison offices in urban areas, and conducting further political talks.

However, Zau Raw said the promise of political dialogue is nothing other than an attempt to bring the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, into the fold of the military-dominated national parliament.

They did not refer to the question of autonomy, Zau Raw said.

However, he said that the ministers—who were all army generals before being elected for the nominally civilian government in November—appear to no longer enjoy substantial influence over the commanders waging the war on the ground in northern Burma.

“The government army has suffered a lot of casualties in Kachin State, but does not wish to stop fighting yet, I think,” Zau Raw said. “We do not know when the government ministers will talk with us again.”

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