Supplies Dwindling for Trapped Hpakant Villagers

By Saw Yan Naing 23 January 2015

Up to 2,000 displaced villagers in conflict-wracked Hpakant Township, Kachin State, are facing dwindling supplies and restrictions on movement more than a week after the Burma Army clashed with Kachin rebels in the area, according to local sources.

The trapped villagers say Burma Army troops are not allowing them to travel outside the villages in which they have sought shelter, with the affected civilians having taken refuge at local churches in three Hpakant Township villages after fighting broke out on Jan. 15.

Rev. Samson Hkalam, the general secretary of the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a Myitkyina-based Christian organization, accused the Burma Army of using the trapped civilians as leverage or for strategic advantage, should further fighting with the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) take place.

“The villagers want to leave the conflict zone, but they [Burma Army] are not allowing the villagers to leave,” he said.

Samson Hkalam said a convoy of aid vehicles was dispatched to distribute food, water and other supplies to the trapped villagers and attempt to extract them from the conflict zone over the weekend.

“Some vehicles arrived there to rescue the villagers, but they are still waiting [for the villagers]. They [villagers] really want to leave, but they can do nothing as the Burma Army troops are not allowing them to leave,” said Samson Hkalam.

The KBC convoy traveled on Sunday to Hpakant to distribute supplies to the villagers, but had not yet returned to Myitkyina, according to Samson Hkalam, who said they were waiting for approval from the Burma Army.

“We don’t even know whether they got approval to reach the villagers. They [Burma Army] should let the villagers go. The villagers should be in a safe place. Now they are afraid for their safety,” he said.

The fighting in Hpakant Township, about 50 miles from the Kachin State capital Myitkyina, has displaced as many as 2,000 people who are currently sheltering in local churches with limited access to food, water and medical supplies.

Burma Army troops are deployed in the area where the villagers are trapped and KIA troops remain stationed at a base nearby. Sources close to the KIA said that the rebel group wanted the villagers out of the conflict zone so that they can effectively engage in combat with government troops without fearing for civilians’ safety.

Brang Mai, a Kachin schoolteacher in Myitkyina, accused the military of using the trapped villagers as “human shields” and said local villagers told him that some men among the displaced were being forcibly conscripted into the Burma Army.

“Local villagers told me that they [Burma Army] will mix civilians in their ranks when attacking KIA bases. They forced men to join the troops,” said Brang Mai.

Lamai Gum Ja of the Kachin Peacetalk Creation Group (KPCG), which serves as a mediator between the KIA and the Burma Army, said his team also attempted to visit the trapped communities on Tuesday, but failed because Brig-Gen Saw Min, the head of the Burma Army’s unit in Hpakant, told him that the military could not ensure their security.

“He said that they can’t take responsibility for us. They can’t guarantee our safety. So, we scrapped our plan to visit there,” said Lamai Gum Ja, who added that security concerns are being cited by the army in denying relief groups and NGOs access to the displaced civilians.

The displaced have sought shelter in several churches of Hpakant Township’s Aung Bar Lay and Hka Si villages since the fighting broke out on Jan. 15. The fighting also resulted in a Burma Army blockade of the road linking Hpakant to Myitkyina.

“The situation of the trapped villagers will deteriorate if they can’t leave [the conflict zone] soon,” said Samson Hkalam of the KBC.

Clashes between government troops and the KIA have flared intermittently since a ceasefire broke down in mid-2012, with an estimated 100,000 people having been displaced by the violence.

The KIA is one of two major ethnic armed groups without a bilateral ceasefire accord with the government, and the conflict in Kachin has blighted an otherwise largely successful push by the central government to end decades of civil war with Burma’s ethnic minorities. The government has said it hopes to sign a nationwide ceasefire agreement on Union Day, Feb. 12, setting an ambitious deadline that looks increasingly unlikely to be met.

Maran Seng Awng, a spokesperson for the Kachin Peacetalk Creation Group, stressed the volatility of the situation in urging a speedy resolution to the trapped villagers’ predicament.

“Fighting can resume at any time there,” he said. “The villagers want to move to safer places in Lone Kin and Hpakant towns, but they are not allowed to go anywhere. Villagers are afraid that they will be used as human shields.”

Correction: This story has been changed to reflect the fact that the international medical aid provider Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was not jointly involved in a convoy of aid supplies dispatched to Hpakant by the Kachin Baptist Convention, as a KBC member had claimed. The Irrawaddy regrets the error.