Putao Protestors Demand Food, Security

By Nan Thiri Lwin 30 January 2013

RANGOON—Around 300 Putao residents protested on Tuesday calling for an end to the ongoing Kachin conflict, which has cut off the transport of supplies and people to their town in northern Kachin State. Residents said they are becoming desperate due to increasing food shortages.

The crowd marched for about one hour from Hokho quarter to Myoma market in Putao Township to demand that the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese government install a ceasefire, restore security and lower food prices.

Since June 2011, when a long-standing ceasefire collapsed, the KIA and the government army have clashed in areas around Putao town and the important road connection to Kachin State’s capital Myitkyina was closed off.

People and goods have only been able to enter to the town by air, but flights are infrequent and passenger tickets expensive. To make matters worse, the wider Putao District was hit by a poor rice harvest last year. Household rice stocks have since been depleted and food prices have skyrocketed.

Some 120,000 people live in Putao District and in the town several thousand residents are completely depended on external food supplies flown in by the government and religious and social charities.

Residents said the protest was a call for help as they were anxious about food shortages and the fact that most could not arrange a flight out of Putao.

“It is to show our difficulty with the transportation situation,” protester Ti Ti San said by telephone. “We have a large crowd of people waiting to travel to Myitkyina from Putao.”

The air tickets cost around $70 but there is a 45-day waiting list, Ti Ti San said. “We can buy ticket on the black market for 200,000 kyat [$235], but this is not possible for every traveler,” she added.

Another protester, who preferred not to be named, said residents were concerned that food supplies would run out completely unless new supplies arrived soon.

“The [last] support arrived two weeks ago. When the food support does not arrive, we have nothing, we even do not have salt,” he said, adding that food prices had increased to almost $5 per pint of rice grains—a high price for the impoverished residents.

Complaints about Putao’s food shortages have occurred since August and there have been reports that residents are becoming undernourished and have taken to eating bamboo shoots and banana plants instead of rice.

Le Paw Ye, a Kachin State parliamentarian from Putao District, who was travelling to Myitkyina from Putao, claimed that townspeople were angered only about KIA attacks in the area.

“The Putao residents protest to call on the KIA to stop violent acts in the area, such as destroying bridges,” said the MP, who has links to the government.

Myawaddy, the military’s propaganda outlet, claimed the KIA had launched more than 15 guerilla attacks on public vehicles on Myitkyina-Putao road between December 28, 2012 to January 22, 20

The government says it has asked the KIA to abandon its attacks on the road in October last year, but failed to receive a response.

Yet, the Burmese government has turned down repeated requests for access by the UN, which seeks to provide humanitarian aid to the tens of thousands of affected civilians in northern Kachin State.