Myanmar Regime Restrictions Spark Health and Humanitarian Crises in Kayah

By NORA 27 February 2023

The Myanmar military’s coup has resulted in dire consequences for civilians living in areas that are strongholds of resistance to the junta.

Over 1.6 million people have been displaced in Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Shan and Rakhine states and Magwe, Sagaing and Tanintharyi regions since the coup, according to the United Nations (UN), due to heavy fighting between People’s Defense Forces (PDF) and the military regime, as well as junta arson attacks.

While the majority of them are now sheltering in refugee camps and villages, many are suffering from a lack of healthcare and other humanitarian crises due to regime-imposed restrictions. In Kayah State, Myanmar’s smallest state and an anti-regime stronghold, the struggle of the people is palpable.

At least four babies died stillborn, while a mother died shortly after childbirth, in January and February in Kayah’s Demoso and Hpruso townships, as well as in Pekon Township in neighboring Shan State.

The Karenni Human Rights Group (KNHRG), which is assisting internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the state, said that the tragic deaths are a result of the coup and the junta’s inhumane restrictions on the supply of food and medicine to the conflict-torn region.

“As far as I can see, restrictions on the transportation of pharmaceuticals are imposed only in our state [Kayah]. The military allows the transportation of pharmaceuticals only for hospitals or clinics with government licenses. They arrest people on the spot if they see any medical supplies being transported without permission,” said Ko Banya, the KNHRG’s spokesperson.

PDFs and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) have been fighting the regime in southeast Myanmar’s Kayah State since May 2021, displacing tens of thousands of civilians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that there were at least 86,600 IDPs in Kayah as of February 13, 2023.

However, KNHRG said that the actual number of refugees is far higher that the UNHCR’s estimate of over 200,000 people who have fled their homes in Kayah since May 2021. In Demoso Township alone there are nearly 100,000 IDPs and around 225 refugee camps. Other civilians have fled to southern Shan and Karen states and Bago Region.

Healthcare emergency in Kayah

Dr. Ye Zaw, a member of the health committee of the Karenni State Consultative Council (KSCC), a body that unites local political forces and EAOs in Kayah, said that the lack of medical equipment and supplies hinders their work.

“A premature baby can survive in an environment where there is a full range of medical equipment. But here [in Kayah] we don’t have that so even though we have enough manpower, we can’t save the life of an infant born prematurely,” said the doctor.

KSCC’s health committee, volunteer groups founded by striking health workers and civil society organizations are trying to cover the gaps in Kayah’s healthcare services. But Dr. Ye Zaw admitted that they cannot provide the same service as before the coup.

“We can only provide our services to people who can reach out to us or when we can reach out to them.  The gap between the demand for and supply of healthcare is so large due to the junta restrictions and the shortfall in medical supplies,” he said.

Ma Saw Saw, a volunteer in a Demoso Township IDP camp, said that malnutrition and the shortage of medical supplies are posing health risks for IDPs.

“Many young and old people get sick very often in my camp. It is very difficult to access proper healthcare as my camp is located in a very remote area. We are always short of medical supplies. Currently, we have 15 pregnant women in my camp. None of them are receiving proper maternal healthcare.  30% of the children in my camp are also undernourished,” said Ma Saw Saw.

She recalled one case where she helped deliver a baby without the assistance of a midwife.

“I helped to deliver a baby in our camp last November without any medical or midwife assistance. We weren’t able to sterilize equipment when we cut the umbilical cord. So the baby got an infection, but luckily it survived,” said Ma Saw Saw.

Humanitarian aid shortfall in Kayah

Volunteer medics at an IDP camp in Kayah State.

IDP camps are also reliant on donations from Myanmar people at home and abroad, but that will not be either effective or sustainable in the long term due to the increasing number of IDPs nationwide, rising prices and tight restrictions and controls on access to refugees.

One female IDP from Demoso Township said that a few UN agencies had worked with local civil society organizations covertly last year. However, she said it was not effective.

“We received nearly 13kg of rice per person about three times last year. We really appreciate their help but, in reality, it is not sufficient,” she said.

Ko Banya suggests international donors need to take a new approach to connect with trusted civil society organizations founded by local people who know the situation on the ground, as some aid agencies are operating under the regime.

He explained that if aid agencies operate under the junta, they will never reach the civilians in need in conflict-affected areas.

“If they cannot do that, they should announce clearly that they can’t operate in our region due to the risks. If they keep beating around the bush, they will only give false hope to people,” said Ko Banya.

The UN said that it delivered life-saving humanitarian assistance to 3.9 million people in Myanmar in 2022. It also claimed that shortfalls in funding and severe restrictions on access to conflict-affected areas had impeded its humanitarian missions in the country.

Food insecurity is the major concern for refugees, as currently nearly 65 per cent of Kayah State’s paddy fields cannot be cultivated, according to Ko Banya. That and strict regime restrictions on rice supplies have worsened the humanitarian disaster in Kayah state.

Currently, the junta is restricting food deliveries in Kayah, while also controlling the transportation of food from the Kayah capital Loikaw to other townships within the state. The regime allows only five to seven sacks of rice at a time to be transported, said KNHRG.

“They [the regime] inspect food deliveries very closely, so it is nearly impossible to deliver rice to displaced people,” said Ko Banya.

Almost 17.6 million people in Myanmar will be in need of humanitarian assistance in 2023, according to the UN.