In Person

‘If We Waited for Aid From the Govt, the IDPs Would Have Starved’

By Lawi Weng 20 February 2017

In an isolated area of northern Shan State’s Namtu Township, around 40 miles from Lashio, an internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp hosts more than 920 people. The residents are multiethnic—Shan, Lisu, Ta’ang and Kachin. Many said they ended up in the camp after fleeing fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups in nearby Mongton Township; some said they were escaping clashes between the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).

The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng spoke to Sai Ba Nyan, the volunteer vice chairman of the IDP camp, who feels that the government has forgotten about them.The camp has existed for seven months, but Sai Ba Nyan said no government representative has come to visit, nor have its residents been provided with sufficient food assistance. After more than two months without any aid donations, Sai Ba Nyan fears that food will soon run out for the IDPs of Namtu.

With fewer local food donations coming in, how do you make sure the IDPs in this camp are fed?

We have saved some of the food we received in previous months. We were not able to provide cooking oil, or other commodities to the IDPs. We could provide only rice. We haven’t been able to provide soap, soap powder or tooth brushes to them for the last three months. We need those things.

For rice, we can provide them with it for another two months. KBC [the Kachin Baptist Convention] also provided 5,000 kyats per person, and rice. They gave it for two months. We had to ask KBC to give it next month, as well. This is how we deal with the problems we have in the camp. We will have many difficulties if the aid we have saved runs out.

How about the government? Do they provide food for the IDPs?

Vice President Henry Van Thio came to visit a camp in Lashio, but he did not come here. There were only around 100 IDPs in Lashio. We have nearly 1,000 people, but he did not come here. We could not understand why he did not visit.

We have been here for seven months already. No minister has come to visit. Even the chief minister of Shan State has not visited us here. Those ministers are civil servants, and get salaries from the government. They have a duty to protect these IDPs. At the very least, they should come and visit, but they never came to comfort the IDPs.

Two ethnic affairs ministers from the Kachin and Lisu communities in Shan State visited the camp in August. They promised to help. They told us to inform them about what the IDPs’ needs were, but in fact, they did not help. They abandoned their promise.

Did you ask the government for aid?

We did not need to ask the government, because the government knew we needed aid for the IDPs. The Special Branch Police, the [Namtu] township authorities and the fire department have to put forward lists of of IDPs in Naypyidaw at the State Counselor’s Office.

Why do we have to propose it by ourselves? The government knew we needed aid for the IDPs, but they did not help. We collected lists of the people in the camp. This was our duty—we reported to the government what was happening on the ground. We are not civil servants, we are just volunteers. The government should understand that we need aid—the government’s duty is to take care of IDPs.

How will you cope if food runs out in the camp?

We will stop this program if food runs out. I do not know what to do next. I don’t know how to find aid in the future because we are not a department in the government.

What I can do is share the information that food in the camp is going to run out soon, and ask for donations. From the help of friends, the IDPs have survived. But if we were waiting on aid from the government, our IDPs would have starved a long time ago.

The Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement donated materials for shelter once, but the IDPs could not use it, as it was of poor quality.

We built the camp by ourselves—the IDPs built it. We dug a well for water, using our own money to dig it.

I told IDP to rely on themselves, not on others. If you rely on others, you will starve. The IDPs could work outside the camp if there were jobs for them.

They went to cultivate rice on the mountainside, and to grow corn. If we could help them to grow rice paddies, then we wouldn’t have to worry about food next year.

If an international NGO could build a sugar cane factory, for example, where the IDPs grow sugar cane and a company buys their products or raw materials, this would help the IDPs to survive. We could eat for four years if we grew sugar cane—growing it for one year means we could get income for the next three years.

Is there a plan for the IDPs to return to their homes soon?

Fighting broke out between the RCSS and TNLA. Fighting also broke out between the government troops and the TNLA. There is no fighting at the IDPs’ home areas at the moment. Some already went back home—we had 1,300 people here before. Some have asked us if they can go back. We will let them come back here if their area becomes unstable again.

Did you negotiate with the ethnic armed groups in order to let the IDPs return home?

We did not. I don’t think we could tell them [the ethnic armed groups] not to fight, because even State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has put pressure on them to make peace. What is important is if the heads of the RCSS and the TNLA could meet each other—then this conflict would end.

We will continue to help IDPs. This is a time of transition in our country. The situation will be all right soon, I hope.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.