A recent offensive by the Burmese military in Kachin State, seizing the Kachin Independence Army’s Gidon mountain outpost, has exacerbated the dire conditions for displaced people living in the area as northern Burma enters its coldest stretch of the year.
On the weekend, government forces took control of Gidon, a strategic hill outpost close to the Kachin Independence Army’s headquarters at Laiza on the Chinese border.
Pierre Peron, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Burma, said there are two displacement camps in proximity to Gidon called Maga Yang and Zai Awng (Mungga Zup), which are home to about 5,500 people directly affected by the recent offensive.
“People living in these camps are obviously very concerned for their safety and are reportedly preparing to leave if the situation worsens, but they have not yet evacuated [as of today],” he told DVB on Thursday.
The danger posed to civilians by the continued use of landmines in the conflict has also been raised by the agency. OCHA says it is receiving weekly reports of displaced people and other civilians being injured or killed by landmines.
Peron added, “We call on all parties in the conflict to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, to ensure the protection of civilians, and to take all possible steps to avoid fighting near IDP camps and other civilian areas.”
Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network also explained over email: “Gidon is close to the Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camp. On the 16th December in the early morning, a mortar shell was dropped by the Tatmadaw at the back of the kitchen of an IDP family. The kitchen was hit and some holes were made in the home. Since that time, the IDPs from Mung Lai Hkyet have moved to Woi Chyai IDP Camp in Laiza.”
Humanitarian deliveries by the UN and INGOs to the area around Laiza have been blocked since October 2016.
“So, there has been no difference in access for humanitarian agencies, but just more mass movement of displaced people,” Khon Ja said.
Last month Free Burma Rangers — a volunteer relief team that delivers aid to conflict areas in Burma — warned that the fall of Gidon would cut off the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation, from IDP camps north of the outpost, likely blocking KIO and Kachin-based NGOs’ humanitarian assistance to these populations.
Escalating conflict — not only in Kachin State but also in northern Shan and Arakan states — prompted a joint statement released by 135 civil society organisations (CSOs) and faith-based groups on Tuesday, calling upon the National League for Democracy government “to take immediate action to halt military offensives.”
Up to 15,000 people from Kachin and northern Shan states have been displaced into China since 20 November, fleeing fighting between multiple ethnic armed groups and the Burmese military. An additional 2,400 people have been internally displaced over the period, according to an OCHA report released this week.
Across Kachin and Shan states, 98,000 people are displaced, many since fighting between the KIA and the Tatmadaw first flared in 2011, rupturing a 17-year ceasefire agreement.
“At a time when all the people seek peace, the national armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, continue to pursue different policies in the northeast of the country, furthering displacement and the suffering of local communities,” the CSOs said in their statement.
“This is about resolving 70 years of conflict and seeing the big picture,” added Seng Raw Lahpai, director of the Airavati Foundation, which supports projects aimed at developing better livelihood options for the younger Kachin generations.
She says peace actors and the international community need to look beyond pressuring ethnic armed groups to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement and instead resolve the entrenched problems stemming from the inequality that minority groups face.
“We need to move from the obstinate view that ‘minorities have to understand they are a secondary issue’ or, ‘The government is the only way’ or, ‘Better make a deal now or it will be far worse for them in the future.’ The rights of nationalities [ethnic minorities] are being undermined politically, economically and by displacement,” Seng Raw Lahpai wrote in an email to DVB on Wednesday.
OCHA says unconfirmed reports suggested that approximately 400 IDPs were evacuated from Mung Lai Hkyet camp in the Woi Chyoi area after mortars landed near the settlement on Sunday, the day of Gidon’s fall, damaging three shelters and a building.
Elsewhere, villagers from Kutkai township in northern Shan State have reported to CSOs that when they refused to leave their villages, the Burmese Army set fire to their farms and rice fields.
“Villagers from Man Lung and Kaung Ling villages have been forced by the Tatmadaw to leave. They refused for two days but after burning of three farms on 20 December night, the villagers started moving and are still continuing. We don’t know for how long,” said Khon Ja of the Kachin Peace Network.
She cautions that the situation is still not stable enough for displaced people to return home, particularly around the Mongko region in Muse township.
“Some people still cannot return and are renting rooms in China. Many cannot return as their housing was destroyed during airstrikes and some people are still missing,” said Khon Ja.
Dire situation for IDPs
Both locals on the ground and humanitarian aid agencies have said that for IDPs, this is the worst situation they have seen in recent years.
In Kachin State, people from Dawai and Pang Hkawn Yang villages in Shwegu township have been hiding in the jungle since fighting on 8 December, says Khon Ja.
She fears for these displaced villagers, particularly as winter sets in: “The weather is so cold and difficult to survive. In Dawai village, two old people remained behind as villagers were not able to evacuate them. One mentally handicapped person was also left behind. Not only food but the people also have no temporary shelter, warm clothes or firewood.
In the statement released by the Kachin and Shan CSOs and faith groups, they called for urgent humanitarian aid for IDPs, describing the situation as “perilous” and drawing attention to the civilians who are “often the main casualties” of conflict.
“The offensive is affecting civilian areas, with shells landing near IDPs and traumatising those in the Mung Lai Hkyet [Woi Chyai] camp. They have nowhere left to flee except to Laiza, with only China beyond,” their joint statement said.
The 135 groups expressed disappointment at the government’s “silence” as fighting has escalated in Kachin and northern Shan State in recent months.
“This is not what the people desired or expected when the National League for Democracy was voted into office by popular mandate last year,” their statement read.
Khon Ja said at the government’s next Panglong Conference, slated for February, all actors involved in northern Burma’s conflicts should be invited and given a seat at the negotiating table: “We really want to solve everything at the table rather than the Tatmadaw wasting the national budget in ethnic areas, creating more damage to the civilians rather than the EAOs [ethnic armed organisations].”
At the first Panglong Conference, convened at the end of August, three ethnic armed groups — the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) — were not invited to the talks as they refused to put down their arms.
These three groups and the KIA have since formed the Northern Alliance-Burma, with a contingent of their troops staging a coordinated assault on military and police outposts in Muse and Kutkai townships on 20 November. The alliance has said they are willing to sit down for peace talks with Burmese government negotiators following more than a month of hostilities in northern Shan State.
The statement by CSOs and faith-based groups ended with a plea to the government: “We therefore call, as a matter of national priority, for an immediate halt to military offensives and for State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to visit the IDP communities in Kachin State and northern Shan State to see for herself the grave conditions under which they live.”