RANGOON — Hundreds of villagers remain in isolated displacement camps in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township, nearly one month after they fled their homes amid conflict between rebel and government troops, aid workers said.
Sources providing aid to the internally displaced persons (IDPs) told The Irrawaddy that while many of the 2,000 villagers originally displaced by the violence had returned home, about 700 are still living in makeshift camps because they fear further conflict.
“The problem is most people don’t want to go back,” said Mya Aye, a member of the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS), which has been visiting the area and providing some basic assistance.
Fighting broke out between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Jan. 15 near Aung Bar Lay village in jade-rich Hpakant.
Around 2,000 villagers were believed to have been displaced by the conflict, including students and schoolteachers, who fled to churches and monasteries in other villages. Local sources said that most of the displaced took shelter in Kan Si village, near Aung Bar Lay.
The conflict appeared to be triggered by an incident on Jan. 14, when the KIA apprehended a state minister and three police officers overseeing construction of a road. The minister was released the same day, while the officers remained in rebel custody until Jan. 19.
Mya Aye said that the 88GPOS representatives were in Hpakant as recently as Feb. 5 on a delivery mission, during which they went to Kan Si, Lone Khin and Aung Bar Lay villages.
Both Kan Si and Aung Bar Lay are currently under the control of the Burma Army, he said, causing trepidation among IDPs in Lone Khin and surrounding areas about returning to their homes. Some of the areas near Aung Bar Lay remain under rebel control.
While many have returned home from the IDP camps, local sources described their circumstances as equally dire, claiming that they are “trapped” by mobility restrictions.
“Refugees and trapped villagers are facing difficulties since they can’t work for a living and they can’t travel freely outside,” said Tin Soe, chairman of the Hpakant chapter of the National League for Democracy.
Mya Aye said that villagers are not allowed to travel freely through San Khar gate, which lies between government-controlled territories and Hpakant.
“The people from Hpakant and Lone Khin are not allowed to travel inside Kan Si and Aung Bar Lay without approval from the [Burma] Army,” he said, while those inside the two government-run villages are not allowed to leave without special approval.
Sar Gyi, a spokesperson for the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG), said that travel restrictions are not only preventing villagers from working, but also limiting available aid.
“All aid groups coming to give supplies to trapped villagers should be allowed to access the area freely,” he said, “and villagers shouldn’t be held as hostages during this conflict.”
Clashes between government troops and the KIA have flared intermittently since a ceasefire broke down in mid-2011, with an estimated 100,000 people having been displaced by the violence.
The KIA is one of the only major ethnic armed groups in Burma that has not reached a bilateral pact with the government, even as negotiators continue their push for an inclusive, nationwide agreement to conclude the country’s myriad other insurgencies.
Kachin State is among the world’s last remaining sources of jade, and is also rich in other gems, minerals and valuable timber. Resource extraction has long been both a major cause and source of revenue for conflict in the remote ethnic state bordering China.