Local Kachin Aid Group Goes Where Others Can't

By Seamus Martov 21 September 2012

Last month, as Chinese authorities forcibly dismantled camps serving as the temporary homes for thousands of refugees at Naung Tau and La Ying in southern Yunnan Province, none of the major international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) or the various UN groups officially permitted to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the Kachin conflict were on hand to aid the re-traumatized refugees.

Fortunately for the refugees facing immediate deportation back to a war zone, the absence of the INGOs did not, however, mean their plight was ignored. Dozens of staff and volunteers from the local relief organization Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) were there to help the displaced families navigate the immense challenges they faced in finding new shelter. The organization, whose name in the dominant Jingpaw dialect roughly translates as “light for the people,” has played a major role in providing help to civilians displaced by conflict in eastern Kachin State along the Sino-Burmese border since the fighting began last year.

Both the absence of INGOs and the sporadic appearance of the UN agencies in the refugee camps is a direct consequence of the constraints these groups face when trying to help the victims of Burma’s ongoing civil war. Despite their rhetoric, Doctors Without Borders and the other INGOs operating in Burma are confined by both international boundaries and the numerous onerous restrictions laid out in the various memorandums of understanding (MOU) they maintain with the central government.

Because the INGOs can only go when and where government authorities say they can, they have been unable to access the majority of the internally displaced Kachin who have overwhelmingly fled to non-government-controlled territory. Instead, the INGOs activities have been restricted to government-controlled areas like Bhamo and Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital.

UN involvement in delivering aid to non-government parts of Kachin state has been an uneven, intermittent affair. In late March, following high-level negotiations involving UN special envoy to Burma Vijay Nambiar and the Thein Sein government, teams from the UN’s World Food Program, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the UN’s Children Fund (UNICEF) and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) were able to make a series of aid deliveries to camps in the Mai Ja Yang area. The UN’s visits to Mai Ja Yang stopped in June after Burmese authorities arrested six UN aid staff in Arakan State. It remains unclear when or if the UN will be permitted to return to non-government-controlled parts of Kachin State.

In a statement sent by the UN to The Irrawaddy last month, a spokesperson for the world body acknowledged that the UN is unable to reach more than 25,000 people displaced in Kachin State. Recent developments in the jade-rich area of Hpakant mean this number is now likely to be considerably higher. Even if UN agencies are allowed to return to KIO territory, doing so will be remain a logistical nightmare as the UN teams will have to cross an extremely tense front line littered with landmines and armed men who regularly shoot at each other.

WPN’s ability to reach thousands of the displaced who otherwise wouldn’t be reached by the INGOs or the UN has earned the group praise and respect from the refugees they assist. “We are very happy to receive help and support from WPN so we can continue to live,” says Laphai Gam, a 55-year-old farmer from Momauk Township now living at Pa Kahtawng Camp outside of Mai Ja Yang. Laphai Gam was living at the La Ying refugee camp in China until last month, when local authorities expelled him along with at least 8,000 other refugees back to Burma.

WPN was formed in June of last year, less than a week after the resumption of full-scale fighting in Kachin State. The group’s formation came out of a series of emergency community meeting that took place in Mai Ja Yang in response to the massive humanitarian crisis caused by the renewed fighting. Many of those in attendance at these meeting included religious leaders and representatives from several small community groups who remain involved with WPN’s daily operations or serve on the group’s steering committee.

Some 15 months after its creation, WPN is responsible for providing food, medical aid and other humanitarian relief for the majority of the estimated 25,000 refugees living in the Mai Ja Yang area, the second largest town in KIO-controlled territory. Led and staffed overwhelmingly by women, WPN has focused on providing assistance to women, children and the elderly, groups that have suffered disproportionately from the brunt of the Kachin conflict.

Since WPN was founded last year, the group’s team of nurses and midwives have delivered more than 120 babies at their modest clinic in Mai Ja Yang and in local refugee camps. The two deliveries that this reporter was invited to observe were relatively low-key affairs. Both babies arrived with little difficulty after some strong pushes from their refugee mothers. “Most of the time the deliveries are easy, but sometimes things get complicated,” says the lead midwife, who like her colleagues was trained at the famed Mae Tao Clinic in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Initially relying on a a shoestring budget consisting of funds donated by the Kachin community, church groups and some small international donors, WPN was able to provide vital food, shelter and medical assistance to thousands of displaced people almost immediately after the group was established.

“We are trying to do as much as we can but major challenges remain,” said WPN’s coordinator, who asked that her name not be used. “The health situation in the camps is a concern, colds and diarrhea are common. We need more support to cover the costs for serious medical cases that have occurred among camp residents,” she said.

The fact that WPN has been able to operate independently for more than a year in KIO territory is a testament to the relative open-mindedness of the KIO leadership, who haven’t imposed the kind of restrictions on WPN’s daily operations and staff hiring that aid groups working in government-controlled parts of Burma must endure.

While WPN is a new group created after the Kachin conflict restarted, many of the community activists involved in establishing the organization had previously been active in community-based projects in the Mai Ja Yang area. This was made possible because throughout the KIO’s 17-year ceasefire with Burma’s central government, the KIO allowed local Kachin community groups a fair amount of autonomy to operate in their territory—a sharp contrast with the reclusive leadership of Burma’s most powerful ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army, which has been far less tolerant about allowing grassroots organizations to form in areas under its control.

WPN’s staff say that the most difficult time for the organization was a 10-week stretch beginning in October of last year, when thousands of villagers from eastern Momauk Township were driven from their homes by heavy fighting between the Burmese military and KIO forces. The military’s push to sever KIO control of territory linking Mai Ja Yang to Laiza, the KIO’s de facto capital, led to a huge increase in the displaced population sheltering in makeshift camps in and around Mai Ja Yang.

Though the fighting in the Mai Ja Yang area has significantly reduced since the beginning of the year, when the sound of artillery shells being fired from government positions could be heard regularly, those who have fled to Mai Ja Yang are still in no position to return to their homes and farms, which lie behind Burmese military lines. The fighting has only shifted in Kachin State to areas further to the north of Mai Ja Yang near Laiza and to the far west in the jade-rich region of Hpakant. Intermittent fighting also continues along a stretch of KIO territory in northern Shan state.

Currently more than 600 unaccompanied children who have fled from northern Shan State are living in Mai Ja Yang and attending local schools with the support of WPN. Most of these children had previously gone to KIO-run schools in the Kutkai region of Shan State that have now been closed due to the fighting. One 14-year-old girl now living in a Mai Ja Yang boarding school told The Irrawaddy how last year after her local KIO school closed, her parents tried to send her to a nearby government school but school authorities rejected her.

“The principle told my father I couldn’t go the government school because I had been at a KIO school before, so I came to Mai Ja Yang,” she said while sitting in the dormitory room she shares with five other teenaged girls, all from northern Shan state. This girl’s story isn’t uncommon, said her teacher, who also fled from traditional KIO territory in Shan State late last year. Previously during the ceasefire students from KIO schools were able to switch to government schools with relative ease, according to the teacher, who says the new unofficial policy is being carried out to punish Kachin youth—a move that she says will only drive more students to KIO areas like Mai Ja Yang.

The stream of young unaccompanied students to Shan State remains a concern for WPN, but the group also faces other major challenges. About 3,000 of the refugees who returned to Burma last month following their removal from China have taken shelter in camps that WPN provides food and medical assistance to. “The people from Naung Tau just moved so we still need time to build new structures for them,” says the WPN coordinator. While the new temporary shelters and toilet facilities for the just-arrived refugees will be completed very soon, it remains unclear when the fighting will end and when it will be safe for the refugees to go home to their villages.

“The situation isn’t clear so it’s hard to plan for the future,” she says, before adding: “WPN is not just here for a temporary situation. We’re here for the long run and will continue to help these people as long as they need us.”