YANGON — A rights group’s report has claimed Chinese involvement in the Myanmar government’s blocking of humanitarian assistance to war refugees on the Myanmar-China border where government troops and Kachin armed groups have been fighting.
“China made their position particularly explicit that humanitarian aid organizations should not be provided access to displaced populations on the Myanmar-China border, equating these organizations with ‘western’ powers—namely the United States government,” a recent Fortify Rights report said.
The report said that since the previous government organized peace-talks between Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups, Chinese representatives in the meetings reportedly insisted that aid organizations not operate on the border areas in Kachin State.
A new report “They Block Everything” based on 195 interviews in Kachin state over the last five years [2013-2018], revealed how Myanmar authorities—particularly the military—have weaponized the denial of humanitarian aid in Kachin State for years. It claims China plays a role in helping Myanmar authorities to put aid restrictions on Kachin refugees.
Since 2011, when armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) resumed, the Myanmar government and military restricted access for humanitarian organizations to refugees in Kachin State especially access to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in KIA-controlled areas. An estimated 120,000 people have been displaced from their homes since 2011 due to the armed conflict in Kachin State.
There are 140 IDP camps in Kachin State and 40 percent of displaced people are living in areas controlled by the KIA and related groups.
According to the report, from June 2017 to June 2018, the government of Myanmar approved approximately five percent of 562 applications for travel authorization to government-controlled areas by international humanitarian organizations.
Since 2015, some aid workers have reported government-imposed restrictions on particular types of aid, including medical supplies. As a result of the restrictions, local humanitarian aid workers rely on suppliers in China to obtain aid for the estimated 40,000 IDPs residing on the Myanmar-China border, the report said.
The report also says all activities in China relating to the IDPs are unofficial, while transporting aid over the China border presents a high risk of being arrested by the Chinese authorities. Mostly, aid workers have to avoid checkpoints, as China has increased patrols and checks for transporting humanitarian aid to the Kachin refugees. Chinese suppliers also face risk, particularly when authorities perform surprise checks of their offices.
Mary Tawn, a director of local relief agency Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) based at the China-Myanmar border told Irrawaddy, “China has seriously cautioned Kachin refugees against crossing their border. They put more restrictions on us; now we can’t even legally carry soap to the IDP camps.”
As patrols increase near the border, we have to make meeting points where we can receive IDP supplies. We can’t carry any aid supplies legally. They don’t understand that we are aid workers for refugees, she said.
“We try not to take risks in some conditions. Sometimes we have to negotiate with Chinese suppliers to send supplies [like medical aid and hygiene supplies] on their own to us,” she added.
According to the report, Chinese soldiers have also forcibly returned Kachin refugees back to Myanmar since the war in Kachin State resumed in June 2011. In 2013 Chinese soldiers burned down a Kachin refugee camp called Layin in Yunnan Province.
The report said China has failed to provide protection to Kachin refugees who seek protection, food, medicine and healthcare in Yunnan Province, and Chinese border guards have committed human rights violations against Kachin refugees by forcing them back into conflict zones in Kachin State.
In 2012, China only gave three days for some 30,000 Kachin refugees to move back across the border into Kachin and Shan states, Mary Tawn said.
In December 2017, China blocked Kachin refugees who suddenly fled from intense fighting near their IDP camps from crossing the border, she said.
“Stray ammunition frequently dropped in the camps. It was an urgent need to move all the people during the fighting. After the fighting ended, they intended definitely to go back to the camps. But China didn’t allow the IDPs to stay on their side even for a short time. IDPs did not dare to go back to the camps and so old people, women and children had to sit near the river [at the border] that night,” she added.
The relief agency said, according to the Chinese government’s policy, they are not allowed to accept Kachin refugees who flee from random fighting.
“They said when fighting happens in the [border] cities, and all the people no longer can stay… they will accept us all together,” Mary Tawn said.
U Hka Li, a spokesperson for Kachin Baptist Convention, one of the largest humanitarian aid providers in Kachin State, also confirmed to The Irrawaddy that IDPs in KIA-controlled locations suffer food shortages frequently as aid supplies are not allowed to pass through China territory.
U Hka Li said, “We have to find some other ways to buy rice for the IDPs since we can’t transport it legally through China.”
Kachin refugees in China face exploitative treatment by employers, difficult working conditions and also forced labor by Chinese soldiers while fleeing from armed conflicts, the report said.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in February, Myanmar authorities restricted humanitarian access to Tanai Township where an estimated 900 people were living in four churches. The authorities also restricted humanitarian access to the Ndup Yang IDP camp in Sumprabum Township in Kachin State.
U Hka Li said that Sumprabum and Tanai camps are under restricted access since two months ago. Aid workers are still not allowed to transport supplies there, especially food.
In April and May 2018, a consortium of 19 humanitarian aid organizations called on the Myanmar authorities and military to guarantee civilians safe passage out of conflict areas, and lift restrictions on humanitarian assistance in Kachin state.
The Irrawaddy requested an interview and sent questions to the Chinese embassy in Myanmar for a response regarding China’s involvement in blocking humanitarian assistance for Kachin refugees but the communication officer did not respond.