UN Blocked From Delivering Aid to Kachin Refugees

By Seamus Martov 21 December 2016

The UN has been waiting for months to send aid to a group of refugees sheltering in territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), but has been unable to secure official permission to do so. According to figures provided by the UN there are about 100,000 displaced people in Kachin State and neighboring northern Shan State, about half of whom are in areas controlled by the KIO.

Under the former Thein Sein administration, UN convoys were allowed to make regular aid deliveries to refugee camps in the KIO area—the first such convoy took place in Dec. 2011. The last such shipment took place in April, and was organized before the National League for Democracy (NLD) took office. Although UN aid convoys to KIO areas conducted during the Thein Sein period were subject to frequent delays, the UN’s effort to reach the most vulnerable displaced populations in Kachin state appears to have become considerably more difficult since the NLD came to power earlier this year.

“Humanitarian access to conflict areas in Myanmar is currently worse than at any point in the past few years. Predictable, timely humanitarian access is vital for organizations to ensure that the needs of all affected people are adequately met and that protection issues are being addressed. Unfortunately, our ability to reach people who depend on humanitarian assistance in Kachin State is getting worse not better,” said Pierre Peron, a Burma based spokesperson with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A statement released by a coalition of Burma based NGOs and aid groups operating in Kachin state in October criticized both the NLD-led government and the military for obstructing access to displaced people in the state.

“Humanitarian access is unfortunately politicized consistently by the Myanmar government, has been controlled and limited. Myanmar Tatmadaw [the government army] consistently hinders food transportation to the most needed area in Kachin State. This is an outright violation against the right of the IDPs [internally displaced persons] and breaching of the IHL [International Humanitarian Law]”, said the statement released by the Joint Strategy Team (JST) for Humanitarian Response in Kachin and Northern Shan State.

In order for the UN aid convoys, which involve the World Food Program and other UN agencies like UNICEF, to be able to reach the KIO area, approval has to be given by both the military and various government departments, including the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, now headed by the NLD’s Win Myat Aye, a doctor from Bago. According to a report submitted to the UN General Assembly in August by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, the process has recently become more complicated.

“While previous requests for access [to KIO areas] would be sent through relevant ministries to the National Defense and Security Council, such requests are now handled by the Ministry of Home Affairs, with final clearance from the Commander-in-Chief,” a reference to Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the report stated.

Such approval does not appear to be coming any time soon from the army chief, in light of the recent wave of fighting between the government and the KIO who recently lost a strategic post, following a four-month siege by the army that included repeated airstrikes and heavy shelling, some of which landed close to a nearby refugee camp. Government officials have instead demanded that refugees sheltering in KIO controlled territory cross into government-held areas to pick up aid and relief supplies at designated distribution points. Aid workers and activists familiar with the situation in Kachin State maintain that compelling large numbers of displaced people to venture across the land mine strewn no man’s land between the KIO and the government-held areas would be impractical and dangerous.

The proposal to force displaced people to cross into government areas has also been met with criticism from the UN itself. Following the completion of his visit to Burma in October, Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, issued a statement that called on authorities to “drop their demand for displaced people in some areas to cross an active conflict line in order to receive humanitarian assistance.” The sentiment was shared by Yanghee Lee, who raised similar concerns following her trip to Burma in July.

The KIO, Burma’s second largest ethnic armed organization, controls a long strip of territory located along the Kachin State border with China that includes the two major towns of Mai Ja Yang and Laiza—the group’s de facto capital. This area also includes a series of refugee camps that were established in the wake of the collapse of the KIO’s 17-year ceasefire with the central government in June 2011 and the heavy fighting that ensued. The camp residents, the overwhelming majority of whom are women, children and the elderly, face difficult conditions living in shelters that when constructed were only intended to be used for the short term.

An urgent appeal issued this week by a long list of Kachin civil society groups and their allie—including a Catholic bishop—called out the NLD government for its “deafening silence” in its response to the ongoing fighting in Burma’s north, The statement, which was also signed by Seng Raw Lahpai, the founder and former head of one of Burma’s most prominent NGOs, the Metta Development Foundation, called on the country’s de facto head of state Daw Aung San Suu Kyi “to visit the IDP communities in Kachin State and northern Shan State to see for herself the grave conditions under which they live.” The request, which Kachin groups have been making of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner since 2012, has yet to be fulfilled.