Conditions are dire for thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Burma, who after fleeing armed conflict are now being pressured to return to their villages in Kachin State’s Mansi Township.
Faced with a severe shortage of basic aid and clean water, the villagers are said to be chaotically “flocking” back and forth between their villages and various IDP camps.
Mary Tawm, coordinator of Kachin aid group Wunpawng Ninghtoi, said that among other pressing difficulties, many IDPs are suffering from dehydration due to shortages of water and rising summer temperatures.
“The first priority for the IDPs is security, and the second is food and water. Due to rising temperatures during the dry season, they are now living in clouds of dust,” she said.
She estimated that more than 2,000 IDPs from the Mansi area had abandoned their homes, many of whom have spilled over into northern Shan State’s Namhkam Township since fighting broke out between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on 10 April.
The government announced on 19 April that 22 soldiers have died over several days of combat in the area, which reportedly began after the deployment of additional troops near the Burma-China border to accompany enumerators for Burma’s national census.
“However,” explained La Nan, spokesperson for the Kachin Independence Organisation, “the clashes are not related to the census.”
La Nan told DVB in an exclusive interview just after the initial outbreak that the current bout of violence is corollary to the fatal shooting of a Burmese commander on 4 April, when he and another soldier drove into KIA territory and ignored warnings to retreat.
On 10 April, Burmese Army troops are said to have advanced near a Kachin IDP camp called Lagat Yang, resulting in rapid displacement and several days of intermittent combat.
Emergency medical aid group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) on Saturday reported atrocities committed against civilians including the rape of a 17-year-old girl by two Burmese soldiers and the shooting of two men, which left them injured and in hospital at Namhkam.
FBR estimated that as many as 3,600 people have been displaced in the clashes that have been ongoing for more than a week. While some have sought shelter in IDP camps and various overcrowded and under-resourced facilities in Namhkam, many others are said to have fled across the border into China.
Mary Tawm estimated that at least 200 people have taken sanctuary on Chinese territory, and that scores of others who attempted to do so were denied entry by Chinese authorities.
The IDPs sheltering in Namhkam, she said, are also facing pressure from the township administration to return home, insisting that calm has been restored.
“They [the IDPs] were recently told by Namhkam’s Township Administrator that they should be able return to their homes in a couple of days,” she told DVB on Monday.
Aid workers have warned of an impending humanitarian crisis as food, water and blankets are in short supply for the growing number of Kachin and Shan villagers displaced by fighting that appears to carry on, ironically in tandem with Burma’s historic yet protracted peace process.
The KIA is the only major ethnic armed group yet to sign a bilateral ceasefire with the Burmese government, as the march towards an inclusive nationwide peace treaty continues.
Representatives of most ethnic armed groups met with government negotiators from 5 to 8 April in Rangoon, where they successfully penned the first draft of a single-text nationwide ceasefire agreement. They are scheduled to meet again in May for further drafting.
Additional reporting contributed by Aye Nai.