Kachin Refugees Face Extreme Food Shortages in Pangwa

By Seamus Martov 25 July 2012

MAI JA YANG—Local aid workers in eastern Kachin State say more than 1,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) face extreme food shortages in a makeshift camp located in government-controlled territory south of the town of Pangwa.

The IDPs, who are predominately farmers, fled when heavy fighting broke out earlier this year between Burma’s government forces and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the area surrounding Pangwa, a town on the Sino-Kachin border northeast of Myitkyina which was once the stronghold of the New Democratic Army Kachin (NDAK), a now defunct ceasefire group.

A Kachin aid worker who visited the isolated camp last week described the conditions as “extremely poor.” He said, “There isn’t enough food, medicine or shelter, and the people are suffering immensely.”

A smaller temporary refugee camp has also been established on the Chinese side of the border, but conditions are similarly poor, he said.

No relief supplies have arrived at the camp from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) or the World Food Program (WFP).

Although the UN agencies have been able to make regular visits to camps located in and around the KIO-controlled town of Mai Ja Yang over the past few months, UN agencies have yet to visit the camps located south of Pangwa.

Only once in the past year has the UN been able to visit camps in the Laiza area, the de facto capital of the KIO, currently home to more than 20,000 people.

According to the Kachin aid worker, both camps south of Pangwa are overcrowded. The camps’ high elevation in the mountains means the temperatures are cold which, combined with the seasonal wet weather, has exacerbated health problems.

Most of the camps’ residents are from Waimah Township and are predominately from the Lachik (also known as Lashi), Lawngwaw and Lisu ethnic Kachin subgroups who populate the local area. Many of the displaced families do not speak the dominate Jinghpaw Kachin dialect let alone Burmese which has further complicated efforts by outsiders to help them.

Aba Awng, a spokesman for Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees, a local group that has sent humanitarian aid supplies to these camps, told The Irrawaddy that he is gravely concerned about conditions in the Pangwa camps. “It is very cold and the displaced families need better shelter, clothes and medical care,” he said. He mentioned that no education facilities exist for the children.

Barbara Manzi, the head of mission in Burma for OCHA, confirmed that the UN is aware of the camps near Pangwa and that the concerned UN agencies want to help.

“We are trying our best to reach all IDPs, regardless of where they are located,” she told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

However, local sources said that while fighting has eased in the area somewhat since June, it will remain very difficult for the UN to reach these IDPs because of their remote location and lingering political issues.

Tensions between the UN and Burmese government authorities have risen considerably over the past month due to the humanitarian crisis created by the turmoil in Arakan (Rakhine) State, and specifically the arrest of three local UNHCR staff who were charged with “stimulating” riots. The three continue to be held despite a visit to Burma in early July by UNHCR head António Guterres. An additional seven to nine staff from other international NGOs were also detained in Arakan State.

It remains to be seen whether the UN’s troubles in western Burma will complicate its efforts to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians caught in the ongoing conflict in Kachin State.