UN caginess hides a Kachin refugee crisis

Reports that have emerged from Kachin state in northern Burma since the region spiralled into war earlier this year have made for grisly reading: close to 40 cases of rape of ethnic women by Burmese troops; countless incidences of forced labour; hundreds of civilians trapped in free-fire zones, and so on. After a brief lull, fighting has escalated in recent weeks, and is nearing an intensity not seen in the region for nearly two decades.

The meagre aid reaching victims of the conflict has largely been organised by local entities – churches, women’s organisations, and sympathetic families, as well as the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), whose armed wing has been battling Burmese forces since 9 June. These groups have been forced to step in and compensate for the lack of UN aid reaching refugees, which are thought to number between 25,000 and 30,000 – the vast majority are internally displaced persons (IDPs), while a few have managed to slip across the border into China.

Of that total figure, only around 6,000 are receiving UN aid, and the majority of these are in the Kachin state capital of Myitkyina and the towns of Bhamo and Waingmaw, which are under Burmese control. To date, no UN body will clarify why such a small proportion of refugees are being given assistance, although the most likely scenario is that the Burmese government has blocked offers of aid to those sheltering outside of its territory. UN envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, one of the few Burma players in the UN who has not let up pressure on the regime, wrote in a recent report that UN offers appear to have been rebuffed by the government, which claims to be “[assisting] at the local level, and when needed they will seek further assistance from relevant partners.”

Claims that all refugees are being provided for, as the government seems to suggest, do not marry with independent local reports that have warned for months that food and medical supplies are low. Human Rights Watch said last week that Burmese troops continue to pillage villages, while supply lines carrying rice, medicine and water purification solution to the conflict zone have been blocked by the army.

The UNOCHA agency, which coordinates aid and which has an office in Rangoon, released a report in September that homed in on the needs of the 6,000-odd refugees in government territory that it has access to, whilst sidelining the 20,000-odd sheltering in Kachin areas. Nowhere in its ‘Recommendations’ section was there a call to allow them access to those 20,000. The reasons for its myopia may be manifold, but all point to a real reluctance to highlight ongoing, inhumane government and military policy towards Burmese refugees and IDPs. Acknowledging the thousands sheltering in KIO territory would go against Naypyidaw’s assertions that both the conflict is not on the scale feared, and that the vast majority of refugees have chosen to seek refuge in opposition territory rather than the government’s.

The arena that international aid groups in Burma work in is a fragile one, where criticism of the government can equal eviction or curtailment of operations. Thus they are effectively required to tow the official line (although the current OCHA head in Burma, Barbara Manzi, was more frank during a 2006 posting in Sudan when she told US diplomats that “confinement [of aid workers] is hampering food distribution to the estimated 73,000 refugees in need of food assistance” – a problem strikingly similar to the one in Kachin state now).

The major problem with the UN’s caginess is that projecting an artificial image of control means that backdoor donors who could channel crucial unofficial aid cross-border and through churches are not alerted to the crisis, while a complacency could set in among international donor countries who still see the UN as the most effective safety net for refugees in Burma. In short, although correcting government spin could well affect its work in the country, at least in this case it has proven to be an ineffective player.

When contacted by DVB, OCHA said that it could not comment on Quintana’s concerns that thousands were not receiving aid, but only that negotiations to get aid to all of those in need “is ongoing”. Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson, Martin Nesirky, also told a press briefing on Thursday that “assistance is being delivered in reachable areas … [and] discussions continue to ensure that assistance reaches all those in need.”

The guarded rhetoric is typical of the UN and other INGOs in Burma, whose public statements often vary greatly from concerns voiced behind the scenes. This is is understandable insomuch as the UN needs that continued access, but it paints a highly distorted picture of the crises that regularly unfold in the country: take the aid debacle after Cyclone Nargis in 2008, for example, when an OCHA staff member secretly told US officials that “the UN was concerned that ‘coming out strong’ on forced relocation [of cyclone victims by the army] at this time could jeopardize the access to the Delta the regime had recently granted UN international staff.” Private discussions with officials at the time, and which have now been leaked, showed that the extent of government ineptitude and paranoia, and the brutality of its treatment of victims, went far beyond what the UN was willing to publicly share with the world.

Another by-product of this policy is that it discredits the findings of local groups, whose work is often dismissed as politicised or rudimentary. The current crisis in Kachin state shows however that these groups are crucial to our wider understanding of the situation, and therefore that the impetus for action should not solely rest on ‘official’ bodies like the UN. Moreover, these somewhat blinkered assessments are being circulated at a time when the Burmese government is attempting, and with alarming success, to shore up its image; yet its denial of the extent of the crisis in Kachin state, which has been massaged by the UN, provides a fitting analogy for how much of the outside world has selectively judged the new government’s merits, whilst ignoring its major shortcomings.

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