Food Shortages Loom as Kachin Conflict Intensifies

By Lawi Weng 15 May 2012

Thousands of Kachin refugees are facing food shortages as fighting between Burmese troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intensifies, preventing UN aid agencies from transporting supplies to camps along the Sino-Burmese border.

According to groups based in the area, the supply of food and other necessities for around 70,000 refugees sheltering in Pangwa, Laiza, Mai Ja Yang and parts of China’s Yunnan Province will run out in about two weeks.

“We held a meeting today to discuss what to do next if the UN-related agencies can’t come,” said Mai Li Awng, a spokesperson for Wun Tawng Ningtwey, a local Kachin relief group whose name means “Light for Kachin People”.

“We decided that if we have to, we will beg for money from border traders and religious organizations, since we have no other options,” she said.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) sent aid in March and April, but has been unable to do so this month because the government army has stepped up its offensive near Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, according to the Kachin relief group.

Meanwhile, local private donors have stopped providing aid to the refugees since the WFP began sending supplies, the group added.

“The situation is getting worse now because we can’t ask for more private donations, since local donors are channeling all of their money through the UN agencies,” said Mai Li Awng.

Aung Kyaw Zwa, a border-based Burmese businessman who donated aid to Kachin refugees on the Chinese side of the border yesterday said that relief groups would find it difficult to get support from traders because the fighting has kept most of them away from the conflict zone.

Fighting has been escalating since mid-April, as more government troops have been deployed in the area around Laiza in a bid to seize control of the KIA’s headquarters.

The intensification of the conflict has also seen an increase in the number of refugees arriving at camps near Laiza and Pangwa, although relief groups said they could not say exactly how many new arrivals there have been in recent weeks.

With no end to the conflict in sight, there are also growing concerns about how the refugees will cope in the coming rainy season.

A relief team set up by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, has coordinated efforts to build more shelters for refugees, but it is not clear if there will be enough materials available to provide for everyone living in the already overcrowded camps.

Disease is another worry, as sanitary conditions have been poor due to the lack of water during the dry season. According to camp sources, one child who contracted measles died last week, and there are fears that there could be an outbreak of the disease.

Fighting in Kachin State broke out last June, ending a 17-year-old ceasefire. The conflict has continued since then despite repeated attempts at negotiations and orders by Burmese President Thein Sein to end military operations.