Myanmar’s government intentionally cut tens of thousands of ethnic Kachin displaced by civil war off from humanitarian aid for more than seven years, a Southeast Asia-based NGO said Thursday, calling the move a “violation of the laws of war.”
In a new report entitled “’They Block Everything:’ Avoidable Deprivations in Humanitarian Aid to Ethnic Civilians Displaced by War in Kachin State, Myanmar,” Fortify Rights details how authorities—particularly the Myanmar military—have weaponized the denial of aid to the region, and urges them to allow local and international aid groups unfettered access to all internally displaced people in need.
“Consecutive governments and the military have willfully obstructed local and international aid groups, denying Kachin civilians access to aid,” Fortify Rights’ chief executive officer Matthew Smith said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.
“This may amount to a war crime, giving even more reason for the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.”
According to the report, Myanmar’s government has knowingly imposed restrictions on access to food, healthcare, shelter, water, and sanitation to the tens of thousands of Kachin displaced by an ongoing war between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) of ethnic insurgents.
It found that Beijing pushed Myanmar authorities and ethnic armies to prevent United Nations and international humanitarian aid groups from operating on Myanmar’s side of the shared border with China’s Yunnan province, where most of the displaced Kachin are sheltering and in need of assistance.
More than 160,000 ethnic civilians are staying in more than 140 displacement sites in Kachin and neighboring Shan state due to ongoing armed-conflict and human rights violations, the group said.
Through interviews with nearly 200 stakeholders at more than 20 mostly Kachin state-based displacement camps between 2013 and 2018, Fortify Rights determined that Myanmar’s government imposed unnecessary travel restrictions on aid groups seeking to enter both government- and KIA-controlled areas in the region.
“The government’s travel-authorization process for aid groups in Myanmar effectively acts as a restriction on aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations in violation of international humanitarian law,” Fortify Rights said.
“The onerous and vague measures imposed through the travel-authorization process involve civilian authorities and have not only led to undue delays in the delivery of aid to people in need but have completely obstructed humanitarian operations in some areas of Kachin State.”
Official policy and legal threats
While Myanmar’s military is primarily responsible for hindering the delivery of aid to Kachin civilians, Fortify Right also blamed the administration of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and the previous government under President Then Sein for policies that deprived the Kachin of adequate assistance.
The report said that the lack of aid had led to increased food insecurity, avoidable health-related deaths, poor living conditions, and protection concerns. As a result, displaced civilians are regularly forced to undergo risky journeys that expose them to the dangers of armed conflict in search of food and other essential items outside of the camps where they shelter.
Local aid groups have also faced official legal action under the country’s Unlawful Associations Act for delivering aid to areas under the control of the KIA, which Myanmar considers a “terrorist” organization, the report said.
“Depriving civilians of aid in an attempt to overcome an ethnic army is a perverse, unlawful, and ineffective strategy,” Smith said.
“All parties to this war have a duty to protect civilians and that includes by ensuring access to adequate aid.”
Call for investigation
Fortify Rights said that the government’s willful deprivation of aid to the displaced Kachin amounted to violations of both international human rights law, which requires it to protect the right of access to necessities for displaced persons, and international humanitarian law—or the “laws of war”—which require all parties to armed conflict to “facilitate free passage of humanitarian assistance.”
The group noted that earlier this week, a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission found that Myanmar’s authorities “frequently and arbitrarily denied” humanitarian aid to civilians in Kachin state, and said the country’s top generals should face prosecution for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Shan and western Myanmar’s Rakhine states.
Fortify Rights urged the U.N. Security Council to refer Myanmar to the International Criminal Court to investigate and potentially prosecute those responsible for human rights violations in Kachin and Shan states.
“Kachin civil society has long exposed how the military’s crimes are part of a longstanding campaign against ethnic communities,” Smith said.
“The international community should redouble support for Myanmar’s human rights defenders and break the cycle of impunity.”
Responding to Fortify Rights’ report, Tin Soe, a member of parliament for Kachin state’s Hpakant township, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that checkpoints and obstructions are a part of life for everyone in the region, not just aid groups.
“We know there are some obstructions in places close to areas controlled by the armed groups … but not everywhere in the state,” he said.
“The military checks and obstructs … not only vehicles to IDP (internally displaced persons) camps, but also to civilian areas, for the reason of regional security and to determine whether aid is going to armed ethnic groups or not.”
Tin Soe said that civilians are the ones who end up as victims when armed ethnic groups engage in conflict.
“As long as these groups fight each other, we will have more victims, more IDP and refugee camps,” he said.
“The busy cities in Kachin state have become ghost towns because of these battles. I believe that all groups should begin walking on the path to peace by considering the livelihoods and stability of the people.”
Some ethnic armed groups have continued to battle Myanmar forces in their quest for a federal democratic union in the country with a constitutional guarantee for a certain degree of autonomy for ethnic minorities. Fighting has raged in regions along Myanmar's border with China for much of 2018.
Aung San Suu Kyi has made peace and national reconciliation between Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups and government forces a priority of her civilian National League for Democracy (NLD) government, trying with limited success to build on the cease-fire signed under her predecessor government.
Last month, Myanmar’s government held the third session of its 21st-Century Panglong Conference to bring ethnic armies, the military, and other stakeholders to the negotiating table in a bid to end decades of armed conflict and strained relations with ethnic minority groups.
The session ended after the 700 delegates in attendance agreed to 14 basic principles covering social issues, the political sector, the economy, and land issues, though no agreement was reached in the security sector, where the powerful national military and the ethnic militias remain at loggerheads.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.