UN Concerned by Reports Army is Using Aid Convoys to Reinforce Troops

By Seamus Martov 14 March 2013

A spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon says the world body is concerned by reports that Burma’s military took advantage of recent UN aid convoys in Kachin State to reinforce troops involved in the fight against the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).

The allegations first appeared in an article published in the Myanmar Times on Monday which quoted from an internal UN memo.

The memo, written by a senior UN official involved in the UN’s relief program in Kachin State, recounted seeing “trucks with government soldiers taking advantage of the passage of the aid convoy to take new positions” in February while the UN was sending aid to the jade-rich Hpakant area of Kachin State.

Asked by The Irrawaddy to respond to the information contained in the memo, Eri Kaneko of the Secretary General’s Office said her department was unaware of the specific report before adding, “We are always very concerned when we hear reports of UN principles concerning humanitarian delivery not being respected.”

A statement emailed by Kaneko said: “In negotiations to gain humanitarian access, the UN has been very clear with both the Government and the Kachin Independent Organization (KIO): aid is only provided following firm assurances for the safety of staff and its operations. The UN provides aid in strict accordance with its humanitarian principles of neutrality and impartiality.”

From Feb. 17 to Feb. 23, a UN-led aid convoy carried desperately needed humanitarian supplies to internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Hpakant. This was the first convoy of its kind to reach Hpakant since January last year. The UN says there are at least 17 camps in the Hpakant area sheltering more than 6,000 IDPs.

An ethnic Kachin jade dealer from Hpakant corroborated the allegations contained in the memo.

The dealer, who refused to give his name for security reasons, said it was well known in Hpakant that the army had taken advantage of the fact that the KIO was allowing UN aid to pass through unimpeded and used the opening granted to the UN to resupply and reinforce government positions in the area.

According to the jade dealer, the army has taken a large section of Hpakant from the KIO since January but the military’s grip appears very tenuous.

Located in western Kachin State, the Hpakant area is often called the world’s only major source of true jadeite, which is distinct from other jade because of its vivid green hues and translucence, making it a highly sought after commodity. The majority of jade mined in Hpakant goes to China with the rest largely going to other markets in Asia.

For much of the KIO’s 1961 to 1993 conflict with Burma’s central government, Kachin forces controlled the bulk of Hpakant’s jade mines, earning the KIO a steady stream of revenue. After the 1994 ceasefire agreement the KIO largely ceased taxing the industry.

During the 17-year-long Kachin ceasefire, royalties from the jade trade provided huge sums for the Burmese government, and according to official statistics the sale of jade and other gems was often the third-largest annual earner for the regime after natural gas and timber sales.

Most of Burma’s major tycoons including Tay Za of Htoo Trading and Zaw Zaw of Max Myanmar are said to have substantial business interests in Hpakant’s jade mines. Kyaing Kyaing, the wife of the officially retired strongman Snr-Gen Than Shwe, is also believed to have a financial stake in Hpakant’s jade mines.