Kachin IDPs 'suffering food shortage, disease'

An area of Kachin state in northern Burma designated as off-limits to aid groups is suffering from major food shortages and spread of diseases, according to a report which claims to show “compelling evidence” of human rights violations committed by the Burmese military in the war-torn state.

The US-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) says the survey is “the first humanitarian assessment of some of the IDPs living in areas of Kachin State that are not controlled by the Burmese government.” The region has been beset by conflict since June, when Burmese forces attacked the opposition Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

With the report timed to coincide with the arrival of US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton told, PHR’s deputy director, Richard Sollom, said in a statement: “As the Kachin and other groups continue to endure heinous human rights violations at the hands of the Burmese army, the government’s rhetoric must begin to translate into human rights for all of the people of Burma.”

Among the key findings was evidence that villagers were forced to walk in front of Burmese soldiers to act as minesweepers, as well as the pillaging of “food and supplies” from civilians by Burmese troops. It also details the killing of “non-military targets” by firing “automatic weapons directly into a civilian village.”

As a result the vast majority of IDP’s are acknowledged to be in territory not controlled by the Burmese government. Various NGOs and some government aid agencies are concerned that the intentional blockade of those areas by the Burmese army is fuelling a humanitarian catastrophe.

But according to PHR, another report in September by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) made no mention of the 22,000 IDP’s that the Burmese at the time were denying aid agencies access to, instead focusing on the 5,900 civilians who had fled to government areas and which it was supporting. With an additional 10,000 having fled in the past month, the number of those without UN aid has likely risen.

UNOCHA responded to the allegations by claiming their September report focused only on this “specific group” in government-controlled territory, but that they were attempting to gain access to “all those in need”. When asked by DVB, however, they refused to comment on whether attempts to gain access to those IDPs outside of government areas had been successful.

The World Food Program (WFP) told DVB last month that they had not considered attempting to gain access to IDPs through China because theirs “is a Myanmar-based program”. UNOCHA today corroborated this position.

As a result, PHR claims that “very little aid reaches IDP camps, and groups caring for them face challenges in providing food, medicine, and shelter. The most vulnerable populations—those in rural areas and near the border—have not received any official humanitarian aid; they are only receiving aid from community-based organisations, which have largely been ignored by the international donor community.”

Paul Wittingham, head of the UK’s Department for International Development’s (DFID) in Burma, echoed this earlier in the month when he told DVB that the ability of local groups inside Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) territory to deliver necessary supplies was very limited.

The PHR report adds that “the incremental political changes in central Burma have not translated into improved livelihoods or improved the human rights situation of ethnic populations living along Burma’s frontiers.”

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who arrived in Burma today, recently described the multiple conflicts afflicting Burma’s border regions as “terrible”. But the government has spearheaded peace talks with ethnic armies, and political advisor Nay Zinn Latt said yesterday that these talks were “progressive” and that a “settlement” would be reached soon.

PHR’s findings mirror historic evidence of attempts by the Burmese army to trap and starve out recalcitrant ethnic groups. A leaked US cable from May 2006 describes the practice as a “standard Burma Army strategy” in its offensives against Karen rebels.

“GOB [Government of Burma] roadblocks prevent food from entering northern Karen State, imposing hardships on Karen villages. For the past two months, the leaders claim a GOB checkpoint four miles east of Taungoo has stopped all transportation of rice, salt, and other goods from entering Karen State,” it said.

“BA [Burma Army] units continue to debilitate Karen villages through forced relocations and the supply cutoff, a standard BA strategy to weaken the support network of guerrilla KNU soldiers.”

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