Fighting Dashes Hopes of Homecoming for Displaced in Kachin

By Zarni Mann 20 February 2014

RANGOON — A recent outbreak of fighting marks a setback for people in Kachin State who want to return to their homes after being displaced by fighting between ethnic rebels and Burmese government troops, according to local aid groups.

An estimated 120,000 people are living in about 100 temporary camps in both government-held territory and areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) after fleeing their homes during clashes in the state since a ceasefire broke down in June 2011.

A relative lull in fighting and continuing talks involving the Kachin and most of Burma’s ethnic armed groups toward a nationwide ceasefire had raised hopes that internally displaced persons (IDPs) could soon go home.

But the Burma Army made an incursion into KIA territory in northern Bhamo Township on Feb. 12, killing at least two rebel troops. KIA Deputy Chief of Staff Gen. Gun Maw told The Irrawaddy last week that the Burma Army had used a crackdown on illegal loggers as a pretext for the attack, and said the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), would have to reconsider the peace process after the attack.

La Ray, who works with IDPs for the Kachin Baptist Convention, said the attack had dented tentative hopes of a return home before this year’s wet season.

“Because of the fighting between KIA and Burmese troops last week, it is unthinkable to hope of returning home, even though peace talks are going on,” he said.

“Hearing the news about the progress of the peace talks, the refugees formerly believed that they could return home very soon. But now the fighting is continuing, and some refugees are depressed. They are desperate, and say they will never be able to go home in their lifetimes.”

He added that many in the camps had turned to drugs, mainly heroin, to relive the boredom and hopelessness of their situation.

“Although we are trying to educate them about drugs and giving moral encouragement, we are afraid this will become a popular habit among the refugees,” La Ray said.

Naw Din, head of the Karuna Myanmar Social Service relief team, said that while United Nations organizations like Unicef are delivering aid, access to some camps is limited, especially those in KIA-controlled areas—where about 60 percent of them are living.

The Chinese Embassy in Rangoon announced this week on its Facebook page that the Chinese Red Cross Society was sending 10,000 boxes of rice, cooking oil, emergency medicine and other supplies to IDPs over the border, at a cost of 800 million kyat, or about $800,000. The embassy said the aid would be distributed by the Burmese Red Cross, but it was unclear whether it would reach the camps inside rebel territory.

“The aid reaching camps located deep inside KIA/KIO controlled areas is still limited because of the continuous tensions between the government troops and KIA,” said Naw Din.

“It is not even easy for people in the camps that are outside of KIA-controlled areas because they have limited food and medicine as they depend a lot on the donations. If donors can’t reach in time, food and medicines will be in shortage.”