The Burma Army has stopped a local environmentalist group from sending food relief to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township on suspicion that the supplies were intended for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Fifteen members of Green Land, an environmentalist civil society group based in jade-rich Hpakant, were in the process of transporting 130 bags of rice, 40 jerry cans of oil and six bags of salt to IDPs in Jahtu Zup village on Tuesday afternoon, when they were stopped outside of Hpakant town by soldiers at the Lawa security gate in the area of Kar Mai, Green Land director U Naung Latt told The Irrawaddy.
“A captain called Aung Thu Hein stopped us and said we had to seek approval from higher authorities. So, we phoned the brigade commander, and he said we would have to ask for permission from Northern Command [based in the state capital Myitkyina]. Next, we called the Kachin State chief minister and he told us to ask permission from the security and border affairs minister [for Kachin State],” said U Naung Latt.
Army officers justified the blocking of the food relief by stating that some organizations have been sending food supplies to the KIA, according to U Naung Latt.
Since mid September, the Burma Army has stepped up offensives against the KIA, using air strikes and artillery bombardment.
Soldiers at the Lawa security gate have since taken charge of the food supplies. Four senior members of Green Land, leaving behind 11 members to remain near the supplies, traveled to Myitkyina to meet with the Kachin State security and border affairs minister—a serving military officer—but failed to obtain permission.
“He said he would report [the matter] to Northern Command and asked us to continue waiting. What else can we do?” said U Naung Latt.
The food relief was intended for more than 200 IDPs taking shelter at a monastery, two churches and a primary school, said U Naung Latt, and permission had successfully being sought from the Hpakant Township administrator, in line with apparent procedure.
“[The soldiers] implicitly accused us of sending food supplies to the KIA, and so did the security and border affairs minister. If so, then is the World Food Programme, which is helping war victims, violating Article 17(1) [of the Unlawful Associations Act]?” he said, referring to a colonial-era law used to criminalize contact with Burma’s ethnic armed groups.
“We are providing food supplies on humanitarian grounds. This is no political trick. It is just because they [IDPs] are extremely short on food,” he added.
U Naung Latt said he would wait at the Lawa security gate until permission is obtained.
The Irrawaddy contacted an officer at the police station in Kar Mai, where the security gate is located, but he said he was not authorized to comment on matters related to the military.
However, he said that the Burma Army had tightened security on roads since clashes in August, when their soldiers fell prey to KIA landmines.
The Irrawaddy also phoned the Kachin State chief minister and the security and border affairs minister but was unable to obtain comment.
Htwel Awng, a pastor with the Kachin Baptist Convention in Jahtu Zup village, where the IDPs are sheltering, told The Irrawaddy, “Yes, it is true that those food supplies are for us. And we heard that the military has taken hold of them. But, we don’t know the latest developments.”
In Jahtu Zup village, the World Food Programme provides 14,000 kyats (US$10.85) per month for each IDP, which is simply not enough, he said.
Some 214 IDPs have been sheltering at four locations in the area since July 31, after fleeing clashes between the KIA and the Burma Army, prompted by alleged Burma Army encroachment on KIA outposts while attempting to seize control of illegal gold mines in Tanai Township, north of Hpakant.
Since the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the Burma Army and the KIA in 2011, more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced. Most still remain in camps or temporary shelters, in both government and KIA-controlled areas.
The World Food Programme, in cooperation with local civil society organizations, has been providing food to IDPs since 2011, but rations were cut by more than 50 percent at the end of 2015. IDPs have since faced shortages.
The Kachin State government issued a notice in September, requiring groups to seek its permission before supplying food to IDPs.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko