Thousands of Kachin civilians living in villages in Hpakant Township, the center of Burma’s lucrative jade industry, have been forced to flee as Burmese government troops mount an intensifying offensive against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the area.
Fresh clashes that began on Monday have driven people from more than 20 villages to take shelter in 23 churches, monasteries and relief centers in the town of Hpakant, sources said. Local residents estimate the number of refugees at around 6,000, although police officials could not confirm that figure.
The exodus began on Aug. 18, when Burmese troops started moving into the area in preparation for a major offensive. The fighting is currently taking place about 5 km from Hpakant.
Tha Kong, a Roman Catholic priest, told The Irrawaddy that about 800 refugees arrived at his church on Monday. Most are women, children and the elderly, he said, adding that the church is now full to capacity.
A local Baptist Church that is now accommodating 775 people is also straining to cope with the influx, said its pastor, Tu Ja. The most immediate problem: a lack of sleeping space and bedding for the exhausted refugees.
While most of the villagers are heading for Hpakant, some are traveling on to the state capital, Myitkyina. Local relief workers say they expect a fresh wave of refugees into urban centers in the coming days.
Hpakant Township is famous for its jade mines, which produce some of the world’s best-quality jade. Many of those who have fled the fighting are miners, but many others are farmers.
Some business people and community-based social and relief organizations have been providing food for the refugees, but supplies are not expected to last if they are forced to remain for a long period of time.
Ja Si, a Kachin woman from the village of Balakah and a member of a local branch of the opposition National League for Democracy, said that heavy fighting between the government and the KIA continues in areas vacated by the refugees.
She said that clashes broke out early yesterday morning in Balakah and continued until 3 pm. Some mortar shells have even landed in villages near the conflict zone. She said that only a few men have remained behind to monitor the situation and keep an eye on their property.
A KIA official in Laiza, the headquarters of the Kachin rebel army, said that the current fighting in Hpakant comes amid mounting tensions between the two sides over the past few months.
According to Kachin media reports, heavy fighting between KIA Battalion 6 and the government army’s Infantry Battalion 272 broke out at 9 am on Aug. 27 in Hpakant Township and lasted until 4 pm. KIA officials claimed that 17 Burmese soldiers were killed in the clashes and that another 27 have been hospitalized in Hpakant.
The KIA official said that peace talks between the government and the leaders of the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization, are on hold because the government’s negotiating team still hasn’t responded to an invitation for further discussions.