Refugees Pour Into Yunnan

Fighting between Burmese government forces and ethnic Kachins escalates in recent weeks.
2012-01-30
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Kachin refugees flee to Burma's border with China to escape the fighting, June 14, 2011.
US Campaign for Burma

Tens of thousands of Burmese refugees fleeing fighting between government troops and ethnic Kachin rebels have flooded across the border into the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, sparking a shortage of crucial supplies, aid groups said on Monday.

Armed clashes between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) began last June, but have escalated into large-scale conflict since the beginning of the year, aid groups said, despite efforts by both sides to initiate a ceasefire agreement.

"I am in the refugee camp right now, where I have spent the past few days checking on and visiting people," said a volunteer in a camp in Yunnan's Yingjiang county, Dehong prefecture.

He said the numbers of Christian Burmese refugees arriving from across the border had greatly increased in recent days, with a new upsurge in fighting since Jan. 1.

"Now their numbers are increasing," Ma said. "The day before yesterday, we went to a camp that had 5,000 people in it, and I've heard that there are more than 10 camps in the area. There are camps in Nujiang, Ruili, and Longchuan as well."

He estimated that there are now at least 40,000 refugees in Yingjiang county alone.

Asked if the Red Cross was helping with the refugee relief effort, Ma said: "So far all the work has been done by Christian organizations inside China and efforts from nongovernment voluntary groups who are concerned with such things."

Threat from cold weather

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He said the refugees now face a shortage of bedding and medical attention as the colder weather sets in.

"They still have rice, but their supply of oil and vegetables isn't secure," he said. "Some of them can earn a few bucks as casual workers, but they have no security at all."

"Some places are short of medical supplies, and a lot of the kids aren't going to school, so they need support of this kind as well, so they can set up schools," Ma added.

"They also need medical teams to treat them. There is also a huge shortage of blankets and quilts for their bedding."

The U.S.-based ChinaAid warned that the situation is rapidly worsening, warning of a potential humanitarian crisis in the area.

"Right now there are at least 25,000 refugees on the Chinese side of the border, the majority of them from the Jingpo ethnic group with Burmese nationality," ChinaAid founder Bob Fu said on Monday.

"There are a lot of children with them, who are now destitute, with nowhere to live and no access to medical care."

"They are short of food, and they lack basic daily necessities," Fu said.

Call for support

He called on the international community to support the humanitarian relief effort with donations of basic supplies.

Calls to the Yingjiang county government civil affairs bureau and the Red Cross went unanswered on Monday.

However, a duty officer who answered the phone at the Yingjiang government offices said he hadn't heard there was a refugee crisis.

"I don't know about this," the official said. "If I, a county government official, don't know about it, then how would the local people know about it?"

The Burmese government met with Kachin rebel representatives two weeks ago in an effort to initiate a ceasefire agreement as President Thein Sein moved to forge peace with various armed ethnic groups.

Although the sit-down yielded few gains, according to a Kachin official, the two-day talks signaled a serious move by the nominally civilian government to end long-running ethnic conflicts which have blighted the country for decades under harsh military rule.

Earlier this month the government signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels in the east of the country amid talks also with the militaries of the Shan and Chin states.

In a statement on its website, ChinaAid said the situation in Kachin was already getting out of hand, and could get worse due to cold weather.

"With a shortage of warm clothes, nutritional foods, and medicines, the chance for the spread of epidemic diseases is high," it said, warning that the Sino-Burmese border "could become the site of a humanitarian crisis."

It said clashes have been concentrated since Jan. 1 in an area just 90 kilometers (56 miles) from China’s Yingjiang county and 170 kilometers
(105 miles) from the border city of Ruili, in Dehong county, both in southwest China’s Yunnan province.

The statement added that around 25,000 of the estimated 40,000 refugees wandering along the border had  crossed unofficially into Yunnan.

On the Burmese side of the border, the KIA is believed to have placed some 21,000 refugees in the Burmese border city of Laiza and 4,000 in the region of Maija Yang.

It said at least 1,500 people are still hiding in nearby forests, while more than 6,000 have taken temporary refuge in schools, churches and villages.

Reported by Qiao Long for RFA's Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.