UK pushes for aid to Kachin refugees

The head of the UK government’s aid department in Burma says more access should be granted to the 20,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) in Kachin state currently suffering food shortages due to Naypyidaw’s blockade on foreign aid reaching non-government controlled areas.

Paul Whittingham told DVB that the Burmese government’s denial of access to these people “is of grave concern to … to the humanitarian community”. Reports suggests that vital supplies are running low in the region controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), where thousands have sought shelter away from Burmese offensives.

“We are pressing the UN to in turn press the government to open up the entire conflict area to humanitarian access, because that is a fundamental humanitarian principle,” Whittingham said. “At the moment it’s difficult but not impossible to reach big numbers, so that’s something we will be demanding when our ambassador visits Naypyidaw.”

Groups such as the World Food Program, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and others are providing assistance to some 5,000 IDPs in Burmese government-controlled areas, but that is believed to be a small proportion of the total displaced by heavy fighting since June.

The UN has however come under fire for failing to publicly push for aid to be channelled to the remaining IDPs.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch has claimed that civilians have not only fled fighting but the many sought to escape the likelihood of being coerced into portering for the Burmese army, and other rights abuses.

Whittingham further called on UN envoy Vijay Nambiar, who is currently visiting Burma, to press Naypyidaw for UN access. “We hope that Nambiar will be raising this as a matter of priority,” he told DVB.

DFID said they were able, through working with local partner organisations, to reach some of those in non-government controlled areas. “We can reach some, but not enough” said Whittingham.

The KIA is believed to be offering support and aid to IDPs in their territory but this has its limits, as fighting lags on and supplies and resources diminish.

Whiitingham did add that dialogue with Burmese government had increased significantly since the new government took over and that granting access for international aid groups to IDPs, despite being minimal, was a departure from the actions of previous administrations.

China has officially closed many roads into Kachin state and allegedly strengthened it’s military presence on the border, with some suspecting that large numbers of civilians will cross the border in search of sanctuary as the conflict between the KIA and Burmese forces intensifies.

The fighting began in June after a 17-year ceasefire between the Burmese government and KIA ended. The KIA has refused to bow to demands to become a government-controlled Border Guard Force.

The government’s actions in Kachin state has caused consternation amongst commentators in Rangoon and elsewhere as relations between Naypyidaw and the Kachin, and indeed civil society in the northern Burmese state, had appeared healthy. The conflict erupted despite President Thein Sein promising peace in ethnic areas.

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