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Myanmar ‘Reforms’ Elude Kachin Refugees

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 23 2012 (IPS) - For thousands of ethnic Kachins who fled fighting between government troops and rebels and survived a bitter winter in the refugee camps that dot northern Myanmar (or Burma), another test of survival looms – gale force winds.

From April, seasonal gales followed by heavy monsoon rains sweep through the rugged, snow-capped mountain terrain close to Myanmar’s border with China. Here, in territory held by the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA), over 45,000 villagers are hunkered down in makeshift bamboo huts.

Another 20,000 villagers – displaced since the current round of clashes between Myanmar troops and the KIA erupted in June last year – are housed in Myitkyina, capital of the resource-rich Kachin state, and Bhamo, both in government-controlled areas.

An estimated 10,000 Kachins have crossed into China to live as “unrecognised refugees in squalid, improvised and jungle camps,” according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“It is important that all the victims of the conflict get assistance before the monsoon breaks,” says Barbara Manzi, head of the United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Yangon (or Rangoon). “It is very critical.”

“The heavy winds break the tarpaulin that provides shelter for the displaced and the monsoon rains make access to the victims difficult,” she said over telephone from the former colonial capital. “The roads are small and are difficult to drive on to deliver assistance.”

But for that, a more troubling question is crying for an answer: Will President Thein Sein, who heads a one-year-old quasi-civilian government, permit U.N.-led relief efforts reach humanitarian aid to thousands of internally displaced in rebel-held territory?

It comes in the wake of a scathing report released this week by HRW accusing the Thein Sein administration of blocking relief to Kachin refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) who are in “desperate need of food, medicine and shelter.”

“The government’s longstanding unwillingness to allow domestic and international humanitarian agencies to provide assistance in KIA and other rebel-controlled areas has deterred some humanitarian groups from seeking formal approval from the Burmese authorities to access certain areas,” says HRW in a new 83-page report.

“These agencies, all with an interest in expanding humanitarian space, have expressed concern that even making such requests could result in government reprisals against their other officially approved projects in the country,” adds the report, ‘Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuse and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State’.

The administration’s roadblocks allowed a trickle of relief, two trucks loaded with food packages, to flow to Laiza, a town deep in KIA-controlled territory, last December.

Following this initial presence of U.N. relief, six months after fighting began, the prospect of a humanitarian corridor emerged.

The United Nations Children’s Fund was among agencies operating in the still military-dominated country that had hoped the breakthrough in December would lead to “additional relief supplies (being) allowed to reach the most vulnerable people displaced in and around Laiza.”

But an OCHA report released early March conveys the limited success U.N. agencies have had in securing a change of heart from the Myanmar government.

Efforts by the U.N. humanitarian coordinator in June last year for government permission to assist all the victims opened a corridor to assist IDPs in government-controlled areas and “hard-to-reach areas in December 2011,” states the ‘Humanitarian Situation and Response Plan in Kachin’.

“However, sustained access for provision of assistance for relief and eventually recovery operations is yet to be achieved,” it adds.

“There is no doubt that the government is denying aid access,” Mathew Smith, lead author of the HRW report, told IPS. “They have prevented U.N. aid convoys gaining access to the displaced in the KIA-held areas.”

The looming humanitarian crisis undermines the reformist image being projected by Thein Sein, adds Smith. “The decision to prevent aid going into the Kachin state is a political decision made in (the new capital of) Naypidaw”.

Since August last year, Myanmar has gone from being an international pariah to a country convulsed by change, marking an end of 50 years of military dictatorships.

Thein Sein has been its principle architect, easing the iron grip military regimes have had on the local media, freeing political prisoners, permitting political dissidents to openly campaign for the Apr. 1 by-elections and holding peace talks with some ethnic rebel groups.

And he was even spared from total blame for the conflict and the human rights violations in the Kachin state. The president’s defenders said that the former general had no control over the Southeast Asian nation’s powerful army – including the military campaign against the Kachin.

For the Kachins, it is a contradiction that exposes the Thein Sein presidency. “His policies to deny humanitarian aid have been exposed,” Col. James Lum Dau, deputy chief of foreign affairs for the KIA’s political wing, told IPS. “They are causing much hardship. Refugees, mothers and children, are being forced to eat less, to share food.”

The current plight the Kachins face is reminiscent of the humanitarian crisis and human rights abuses the country’s ethnic minorities have faced over the past five decades, during which conflicts between government troops and ethnic rebels forced close to 500,000 people to flee their homes and live as IDPs for years.

The clashes since June last year brought to an end a ceasefire that Kachin leaders signed with military leaders of the then Burma in 1994, one of many peace deals struck with 17 other ethnic separatists since the early 1990s.

“It was the Burmese troops that started the fight in June. They broke the ceasefire,” asserts Lum Dau. “They thought they could crush us in a few weeks. But we will not surrender.”

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