RANGOON — Displaced by fighting between the government and an ethnic armed group, about 1,600 villagers in southern Shan State are in urgent need of assistance, according to the Shan State Peace Task Force, a peace advocacy group that recently visited the affected population.
Nearly 300 households fled fighting between the Burma Army and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) in three Mong Hsu Township villages last year and now live in neighboring villages, or have otherwise relocated to the Heik Par internally displaced person (IDP) camp. Fighting first flared in October.
Among the displaced are 355 children and 130 elderly, including a 102-year-old grandmother, along with 22 pregnant women and 24 who have recently given birth, according to Khin Moe Moe, a lawyer with the Myanmar Lawyers’ Network who visited the camp and villages.
Several Shan State-based community organizations, headed by the Shan State Peace Task Force, last week visited the Heik Par camp and the three villages in Mong Hsu Township.
As part of its mission, the team collected data on the IDPs, documenting their losses and needs. After compiling the information, the task force will submit a report on the IDPs’ situation to the Union Parliament through a Shan State lawmaker.
Mong Hsu Township does not have parliamentarians representing it in the newly seated Parliament, because elections were cancelled in the constituency due to fighting ahead of Burma’s November general election.
Khin Moe Moe, who is also chairwoman of the Shan State chapter of the National League for Democracy (NLD), said displaced villagers are not yet able to return to their homes, some of which no longer exist.
“Their villages became battlefields between the two groups, where [land] mines still exist, so that they can’t go back until they are cleared,” she told The Irrawaddy. “They can’t return to their livelihoods either, as their houses, corn, seeds were burned and destroyed.”
Although there has been no fighting for weeks, the displaced population remains vulnerably situated between the Burma Army and SSA-N positions. The peace advocacy group’s trip last week required that it pass through multiple checkpoints manned by soldiers from both sides of the conflict.
“We could only pass by Shan [SSA-N] gates by communicating in the local ethnic language,” Khin Moe Moe said.
Property including motorcycles and agricultural equipment such as threshing machines was destroyed by heavy artillery fire when fighting flared last year.
An initial wave of donations has given way to more austere times as the conflict has subsided, with the Nang Kom Philanthropic Association of Mong Hsu Township, which is helping to manage the IDP camp, only able to guarantee a three-month rice ration supply.
“They will face difficulties if there are no donors in three months’ time,” Khin Moe Moe said.
Unlike more established IDP camps elsewhere in the country, temporary structures have been haphazardly erected by the displaced at Heik Par, and a systematic approach to the camp’s management is lacking. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) initially provided 10 million kyats (US$7,700) worth of bamboo for construction of shelters for the displaced, but security concerns have since prevented the organization from returning.
The Shan State Peace Task Force was able to donate some money toward the purchase of sheet metal for roofing, but Khin Moe Moe said pressing needs remain.
“They need, mainly, construction materials before the rain comes,” Khin Moe Moe said, referring to Burma’s monsoon season, which usually begins in April or May.
Looking beyond the immediate needs of IDPs, Khin Moe Moe said she was worried about longer term impacts on the affected Shan ethnic minority children.
“They are already traumatized, wherein they run away if they hear Burmese, assuming Burmese soldiers are coming. This could damage relations between ethnics and [aspirations for a] federal system,” she said.
The group plans to submit a rehabilitation proposal to Parliament to deal with the psychological effects of the conflict on affected civilians.