Refugees on Myanmar-China Border in Crisis Amid Cease-Fire Doubts

myanmar-supplies-kokang-refugee-camp-march-2015.jpg Workers unload supplies at a camp for Kokang refugees, March 2015.
Photo courtesy of a Kokang resident

Tens of thousands of displaced civilians in northern Myanmar's conflict-riven Kokang region and across the Chinese border face worsening conditions and uncertainty, local sources told RFA on Monday.

A volunteer doctor surnamed Sun at a refugee camp near Lingesai in China's southwestern province of Yunnan said a woman had died recently as a result of debilitating conditions in the camp, and that disease is now rife in many of the volunteer-run camps on the Chinese side of the border.

"The water they are drinking is very dirty and turbid, so how could they not get sick?" said Sun, who said he was the only doctor currently volunteering in the camps. "It is very hot during the day."

He said a lack of purification equipment for water taken from small creeks and drainage ditches was at the heart of the problem, but that a lack of education about when to seek medical advice and how to stick to prescribed medication had made matters worse in the camps.

"There are a lot of illnesses that are easily cured if you treat them early, but they haven't sought treatment, perhaps because they are refugees now," Sun said.

"They will only bring people over here for treatment if there is a medical emergency and their lives are in danger."

Shortage of medical staff

Refugees in Xiaobangdong, Chaheba, Qincaigou, Malishu, Maidihe, Guangbaowa, and Yangchang camps in Yunnan told RFA that a shortage of clean water has led to widespread diarrhea and fever, with children in the camps among the worst affected.

Sun said he had already gotten sick several times, and needs qualified medical staff to lend a hand.

"I wish someone could relieve me of duty and take over for a shift, but there's no one," he said.

"Even if we paid someone, they wouldn't want to come, because there's a war on."

Sun said China's Red Cross is currently only meeting the needs of around a small proportion of the refugees on the Chinese side of the border.

"The government has only provided real refugee relief in two camps, while the rest of the refugees can't get in there," he said.

"Those are the two camps that the Chinese Red Cross allows the outside world to see."

"They won't take refugees we have sent to them, saying they're full, but then they tell us we shouldn't concern ourselves," Sun said. "So who is going to take care of them? People here can't even get water to drink."

An uncertain future

Meanwhile a volunteer surnamed Li at the Maidihe refugee camp, which straddles the border, said refugees are beginning to hope that rumored cease-fire negotiations will allow them to go home.

"It seems the Myanmar government is getting ready to hold talks with the Kokang rebel alliance," Li said. "If that's the case, then we will all be able to go home pretty soon."

But he said the tens of thousands of displaced civilians still face an uncertain future, even if the conflict ends soon.

"Over at the No. 125 Border Marker camp, they have drawn up two scenarios," Li said. "In one, they totally disperse all of the refugees and leave them to fend for themselves."

"In the second, they send those who have the greatest hardship to Nansan in China and provide them with a month's worth of food and housing, then nothing," Li said.

"That's how their thinking is going right now."

Government-led talks began on March 17 in Yangon, but without the current conflict between rebel groups in Kokang on the table.

The move sparked criticism that the exclusion of Kokang's Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) would undermine any final agreement.

The talks continued Monday in a bid to finalize an agreement without the MNDAA under ethnic Chinese commander Peng Jiasheng, who launched a bid to retake the rugged and mountainous region of Shan State on Feb. 9, and whose forces are currently focusing their efforts on the regional capital Laukkai.

Talks delayed

Officials have promised that Kokang cease-fire talks will begin after the current round of negotiations is complete, official Chinese media reported.

A spokesperson surnamed Song for the Kokang rebels told China's English-language Global Times that the Myanmar government hadn't approached them yet to start talks, however.

"There has so far been no representative from the Myanmar government or military saying that they support a cease-fire or want to achieve peace in Kokang," Song said.

"On the contrary, we have been seeking to negotiate with the Myanmar government but have received no response."

The fighting in Kokang has on several occasions spilled over the border into China's southwestern province of Yunnan, prompting stern warnings from Beijing after five of its nationals were killed on March 14.

However, official Chinese media have focused on the danger of increased cross-border stability in the region, rather than commenting on the conflict itself.

Cross-border movements

Meanwhile, there are signs of constant movement back and forth across the border by civilians seeking shelter, food, and employment, aid workers said.

An aid worker surnamed Zhao at the No. 125 Border Marker camp in Kokang said the number of refugees at the camps had fallen in recent days from a peak of 5,000 to some 1,700.

"They have gone to try to find a way to live," Zhao said, adding that he hadn't heard any sounds of fighting in the past two days.

A second volunteer at the camp who declined to be named said that many of the refugees had again crossed the border into China in search of work.

"Some have gone [to Nansan] to find work, because they were finding it hard to scrape an existence here," the volunteer said.

"They are trying to find their own food and clothing."

A lull in fighting

Kokang sources told RFA on Monday that there had been a temporary lull in fighting.

"There hasn't been any fighting today," a Kokang resident of the conflict zone surnamed Yuan told RFA. "I heard one or two shells and gunfire two or three times [on Sunday]."

He said residents had witnessed a burst of fierce fighting on Sunday near the Yanglongsai border checkpoint.

"It was apparently the Kokang rebel forces trying to disrupt the Myanmar army's activities," Yuan said. "It was a small group doing the fighting."

Yuan said Myanmar warplanes hadn't been seen in the region on Sunday and Monday, either.

"They haven't been seen in the past couple of days, but we heard gunfire and artillery fire," he said. "I saw one helicopter sent on reconnaissance by the Myanmar government, but it wasn't a fighter jet."

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


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