Official Denies Refugee Crisis

Thousands flee Burma to escape fighting between government and ethnic armies.

2012.02.10
Kachin refugees flee to Burma's border with China to escape the fighting, June 14, 2011.
US Campaign for Burma

More than 50,000 people have fled to the southwestern Chinese border following fighting between Burma's ethnic Kachin rebels and government troops, aid workers said Friday. But an official in China's Yunnan province denied there is a burgeoning refugee problem in the region.

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.

Dozens of refugee camps have mushroomed in Yunnan's Dehong prefecture, which runs along the border with KIA-held territory in Burma, and refugees are now facing overcrowding and a shortage of food and medical supplies, according to aid worker Ma Er, who is coordinating relief work at some of the camps on behalf of Christian groups.

Ma said that the relief effort serving the growing influx of refugees in the area, believed to be around 57,000 at present, has so far seen no input from the local government or the Red Cross, who undoubtedly know about the problem.

"This is such a huge problem, and it extends all through Yanjiang county and through the whole of Dehong prefecture," Ma said.

Official denial

An official who answered the phone at the Yanjiang county government offices on Friday denied any such problem existed.

"I don't know about this," the official said. Asked about a large number of Burmese refugees within the borders of Yanjiang county, he replied: "No, I don't think so. We don't have any here."

A report on Thursday in the Global Times newspaper, which has close ties to China's ruling Communist Party, reported a slight increase in the number of Burmese people in the border areas of Dehong, but glossed over the scale of the problem.

"Our government doesn't seem to want to concern itself," Ma said. "I heard some people saying they were even chasing back some people who had fled the fighting."

He said the refugees were crammed into overcrowded rooms and temporary accommodation with insufficient medical supplies amid the growing threat of disease.

"We are very short of medical supplies, especially treatments for diarrhea and cough, and anti-inflammatories," said Ma, who is a member of the China Christian Journalists' Association.

Upsurge in fighting

He said the numbers of ethnic minority Christian Burmese refugees arriving from across the border had greatly increased following a new upsurge in fighting since Jan. 1.

"It is getting pretty cold in some places now, so they also need thicker clothing and stuff like that."

Ma said he had recently visited a large refugee camp in the border town of Laiza.

"That is on the Burmese side, and it's the headquarters of the KIA, and it's where the largest numbers of refugees are gathered," he said.

He said local reports said talks were currently under way between the KIA and government forces to try to agree on a ceasefire deal.

"I don't know how the talks went ... but whether they went well or badly, it will still be another five or six months before the refugees can go home at the very least," he said.

Help from churches

"They will continue to be here for a while," Ma said, adding that much of the funding for relief work was coming from the KIA and local Christian groups.

"The Kachin people are mostly Jingpo ethnicity, and some of their big businessmen have been making contributions to help the refugees," he said.

"As for nongovernment groups, there are a lot of churches over on our side of the border, and a lot of charitable people have been helping out, mostly from the churches."

The Burmese government met with Kachin rebel representatives last month in an effort to initiate a ceasefire as President Thein Sein moved to forge peace agreements 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.

The government also signed a ceasefire with Karen rebels in the east of the country and held talks with forces from the Shan and Chin states.

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

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