Aid push to stem Kachin refugee crisis

Calls from eight Kachin groups on visiting US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to press the government to draw to a close months of heavy fighting in the northern Burmese state have been welcomed by rights groups.

The US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), who released a report this week detailing ongoing human rights violations by the Burmese army against Kachin civilians, further applauded Clinton’s request that the government drop its blockade on aid reaching the thousands displaced by fighting since June.

Naw Din, editor of the Thailand-based Kachin News Group, a signatory to a letter sent to Clinton prior to her meeting with President Thein Sein yesterday, said the denial of the extent of the refugee crisis was proof that the government’s “democratic reform is not genuine”.

“If they want genuine democratic reform, they should initiate a ceasefire, not only in Kachin state but nationwide and then hold negotiations,” he said.

Of the estimated 40,000 forced to flee their homes in the past six months in Kachin state, the government is allowing the UN to access only 6,000 sheltering in government-controlled territory. The remaining have fled to areas controlled by the warring Kachin Independence Army (KIA) or across the border to China.

A number of charity groups from Rangoon and Mandalay are heading to the northern state this weekend to support the aid effort, which local groups in Kachin state say is woefully undernourished.

Among them are the renowned Free Funeral Service Society, which has donated around 20 million kyat ($US25,000) to supplying food and medicine to the refugees. Also heading north is the Mandalay-based Bawa Ahlin, whose leader monk Ashin Uttamatharya, told DVB that it would bring doctors from Mandalay to the war-torn frontier region.

Weather conditions are expected to deteriorate in the mountainous region as winter kicks in, and other groups included in the aid effort, such as the Child Lovers Network from Rangoon, say they will send winter clothes and blankets there.

Ethnic political parties have also waded into the debate over aid to the refugees, and urged a more substantial push for a ceasefire. Nai Ngwe Thein, chairman of Mon National League for Democracy, believes however that the government has no interest in allowing groups like the KIA to continue controlling areas of the resource-rich state.

“[The Burmese government] has a lot of joint investments with China in Kachin state and they are merely looking to secure them … [and] completely crush the KIA so that they can get hydropower from Kachin state,” he said, adding that China was playing a “discreet role” in the conflict and refusing to support refugees crossing over the border.

While the political reforms underway in Burma have received strong support from the international community, PHR say they are serving to distract from crises in the border regions. “Incremental changes that do not reach ethnic minority communities are not signs of sustainable progress,” it said in a statement released today.

“Secretary Clinton noted that preliminary gestures of openness on the part of the leaders of Burma will not automatically translate into a lifting of sanctions,” it added.

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