Kachin IDPs Can Return Home Soon: Govt

By Nyein Nyein & Kyaw Phyo Tha 31 May 2013

MYITKYINA, Kachin State—One day after a preliminary peace agreement between the Burmese government and ethnic Kachin rebels, Minister Aung Min from the President’s Office said internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kachin State could soon return home.

During visits to three refugee camps in Burma’s northernmost state on Friday morning, the minister was accompanied by UN special envoy Vijay Nambiar and Lt-Gen Myint Soe, a high-ranking government army official who commands the Bureau of Special Operations-1, which oversees military operations in Kachin State.

“Internally displaced people here should be prepared to go home soon,” Aung Min told more than 500 refugees at Thagaya camp in Wai Maw Township.

“You have to be prepared to take part in the national development process, because yesterday we signed a preliminary agreement that will reduce military tensions in northern Burma and lead to further progress toward reaching a peace deal,” he added.

The minister said the IDPs could return home within two months but that detailed plans would need to be discussed with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). “It will take a little bit of time,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Kachin people have been displaced in fighting between Kachin rebels and the government since a longstanding ceasefire broke down in 2011.

Many of the IDP camps are overcrowded and lack supplies, according to activists and aid workers. The government has prevented international aid groups from accessing camps in rebel-controlled territories near the border with China, although a UN convoy was allowed to bring aid in February.

The UN’s Nambiar said on Friday that the IDPs could leave the camps soon and that the United Nations would continue assisting Burma’s government and the KIO.

“Before the peace talks, sadness and frustration were written on the faces of Kachin people I saw,” he said. “After the talks, I saw expectation on all their faces.”

Myint Soe from the government army said he could not guarantee exactly when the IDPs would be able to go home, but that it would not be long.

Camp residents praised the minister’s news but also voiced concern for their safety.

“We really want to go home, but only if there is genuine ceasefire,” one IDP told Aung Min. “Plus we have no money to resume our livelihoods, and our neighborhoods have been riddled with landmines. I’m worried about our children’s education, too.”

In response, the minister said that after the government established trust with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), de-mining programs would begin in the state.

“We will support food, education and so on,” he added. “But our government alone can’t handle all of these tasks. It must be an all-inclusive process.”

Burma’s military has been at war against Kachin rebels for decades, but both sides signed a ceasefire agreement in 1994. The conflict flared again up in June 2011 after the longstanding ceasefire broke down. Fighting escalated in December last year until February, when clashes became less frequent.

The war has displaced tens of thousands of people. In Myitkyina and Wai Maw alone, more than 12,000 people are currently staying in 39 camps, although there are many other camps in the state.

On Thursday, a government negotiation team and the KIO signed a seven-point statement in which both sides agreed to “undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities” and to “continue discussions on military matters related to repositioning of troops,” according to two points from a translation of the agreement.

Officials said the agreement—although not a ceasefire—marked an important step toward ending clashes.

The US Embassy in Rangoon said the United States was encouraged by the agreement and would continue to closely follow the political, military and humanitarian situation in Kachin State, according to a press statement from the embassy on Friday.