Army Restrictions Leave Kachin Refugees Without Aid

By Seamus Martov 21 August 2015

MYITKYINA — A group of more than 1,400 civilians displaced by recent fighting in Kachin state’s Sumprabum Township remain cut off from United Nations aid agencies and other relief groups, more than a month after heavy fighting in the area forced villagers to flee their homes in eight villages.

Most of the displaced have taken shelter in a forested area close to territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), posing a problem for aid groups, which must seek permission from the Burma Army and other government officials before delivering aid there.

Located in northern Kachin State, much of Sumprabum Township is difficult to access by road during the wet season. Sending aid upriver from state capital Myitkyina is a possibility but also requires advance approval by authorities.

“The UN still has not had access to provide assistance to an estimated 1,400 displaced people in Sumprabum,” Pierre Peron, a Rangoon-based spokesperson for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Irrawaddy.

“We continue to call on all parties to the conflict to ensure the protection of civilians, respect international humanitarian law, allow safe passage to civilians wanting to leave the area, and allow humanitarian access to local organizations to provide assistance,” he added.

Some of the state’s largest local civil society groups, including the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) and the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, are also waiting to send aid to the refugees. In early August the KBC was able to send some relief supplies up the road to the displaced villagers, but on Aug. 9 a subsequent aid convoy was turned back by Burma Army soldiers.

The refusal by government and military authorities to permit aid to reach the displaced civilians has caused great concern amongst the Kachin community. Khon Ja, a member of the Kachin Peace Network, said that denying internally displaced persons access to aid in a war zone was a violation of international law.

“The right to humanitarian assistance is the right of IDPs,” she wrote in an email to The Irrawaddy. “Blocking humanitarian assistance is a crime against humanity. The government of Myanmar should open the road for humanitarian organizations now.”

Seng Zin, general secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand exile group, said she was concerned that military and government authorities were blocking aid in order to strengthen their hand over the KIO .

“I am concerned that refugees are being blocked from getting aid by the government in order to pressure the KIO into signing the national ceasefire”, she said.

According to Seng Zin, using humanitarian aid as a bargaining chip is a tactic that has been utilized by central government authorities many times in the past—not only in Burma’s north, but also during offensives against Karen insurgents in the 1990s.

Since a 17-year ceasefire between Burma’s government and the KIO ended in June 2011, humanitarian access to the more than 100,000 people displaced by the ongoing conflict has been an ongoing issue for the UN and other aid groups, particularly in KIO areas, where a majority of the displaced population has taken shelter.

Even in camps in government controlled areas such as Myitkyina—where NGOs are given much easier access to internal refugees—life remains difficult for the displaced residents, many of whom are women and children.

According to a UN report released in July on displaced residents of Kachin and northern Shan State, four years of occupancy has left temporary shelters in a dilapidated state, with many in “urgent need of repair and maintenance”.