As thousands of ethnic Kokang refugees remain stranded in China, tens of communities have been emptied and transformed into “ghost villages” on the Shan State-China border, according to recent updates by the Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF).
In early 2015, up to 100,000 people fled the region during four months of clashes between government forces and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), a non-state Kokang armed group.
More than one year later, increased militarization in the region and continued Burma Army abuses against villagers who attempt to return have left thousands of members of the ethnic Chinese minority homeless.
SHRF has released new estimates that over 20,000 Kokang are living in limbo in makeshift camps in neighboring Yunnan Province in China, a number much greater than a UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) figure from January 2016 stating that about 4,000 Kokang remain displaced, out of the 70,000 who reportedly were uprooted in 2015.
“It has been difficult to confirm population movement estimates,” said Pierre Peron, a spokesperson for UNOCHA in Burma, on the differing figures offered by the UN agency and the community-based SHRF. Due to ongoing insecurities in the region, he said that UNOCHA has had limited access to the Kokang area.
In March, SHRF conducted interviews with displaced Kokang originally from 20 villages that in the past year have been “deserted.” From this survey, the most urgent concern raised by refugees across the Chinese border is the blackout of humanitarian assistance.
Contributing to their vulnerability is their location, positioned between the Burma Army and Chinese authorities—both of whom have reportedly restricted aid access.
Vivian Tan, regional spokesperson for the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), confirmed to The Irrawaddy that the UN refugee agency “does not have access” to the areas in which the displaced Kokang are staying on the Shan State-China border.
“These refugees are in a dire situation,” SHRF spokesperson Sai Hor Hseng told The Irrawaddy on Friday, describing food shortages. Other than local assistance, “there is no aid to reach them,” he said. “They don’t have anything.”
One 61-year-old farmer has been in a displaced people’s camp in China since he left his village of Shung Diao Ai in February 2015. Two months later, the camp itself was shelled during fighting between the Burma Army and the MNDAA. In SHRF’s update, he is quoted as saying that his community has not received donations of rice in two months.
In order to survive, the displaced Kokang “have to rely on themselves,” Sai Hor Hseng added, explaining that relatives who are able seek work on farms in China, and those left in the camps forage for edible plants and vegetables in the surrounding forest. Those who try to cross the porous border back to Burma to reach their farms—usually to cultivate their primary crop of sugarcane—have described being detained, tortured, shot at and sexually assaulted by Burma Army troops now occupying the area.
According to UNOCHA’s Humanitarian Response Plan for 2016, the UN aims to provide 10,000 returnees to the Kokang Self-Administered Zone (SAZ) with aid through the World Food Programme.
For displaced Kokang trying to return to Burma, another obstacle is a lack of full identification papers.
“My parents had proper Burmese ID cards, so I should have been given one too,” a 73-year-old farmer told SHRF. The authorities, Sai Hor Hseng explained, are not granting national ID cards to the Kokang, despite their classification as one of Burma’s 135 “national races” recognized by the government. They are instead given a “three-fold” paper restricting their movement and effectively denying them citizenship.
“We are not treated equally,” said the farmer, who wished to remain anonymous. “This is one of the reasons for the war now.”
Addressing the conflict in the Kokang region means envisioning a new peace process in Burma, argues SHRF. In October 2015, eight out of the country’s more than 20 non-state armed groups signed a so-called nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) with the former Burmese government. A handful of ethnic armed groups were excluded from participating in the accord—among them was the MNDAA.
“If every armed group is involved in the peace process, it will bring a more meaningful solution to the conflict in Burma,” said Sai Hor Hseng. “Only political dialogue will solve the problems in our country,” he said.
In early April, a newly elected administration led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) stepped in to the country’s leadership.
Sai Hor Hseng said he hopes the NLD “will implement a policy of national reconciliation,” that “brings all armed groups to the table to talk,” including the MNDAA.