Fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State Drives More Refugees Into Camps, With Food Aid Blocked by Government Troops

Refugees also face hardship in camps in Rakhine, where shelters need major repairs ahead of the rainy season.
2021-05-17
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Fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State Drives More Refugees Into Camps, With Food Aid Blocked by Government Troops Protesters march in support of Myanmar's opposition National Unity Government (NUG) in a demonstration in Hpakant, Kachin state, against the military coup, May 8, 2021.
AFP

More than 3,000 refugees have fled their villages in northern Myanmar to escape fighting between junta military forces and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) during the last three months, filling refugee camps in Kachin state’s five townships, sources in the region say.

Fighting in the northern state bordering China has intensified since the Feb. 1 military coup that overthrew the democratically elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi, and food aid to the refugees has been largely cut off by moves by the State Administration Council, Myanmar’s military rulers, to block roads leading to the camps.

“The most difficult thing is the military blockade of our food transport routes,” said Klem Samson, chairman of the Kachin Baptist Church (KBC), which is working to send help to villagers displaced by the fighting.

“Secondly, it is difficult to send money even if there are people who want to help financially,” he said, referring to nationwide limits now in place to the amounts of cash allowed for withdrawals from the country’s banks.

“These are the two major challenges we currently face,” he said.

A total of 166 refugee camps are currently operating in Myanmar’s Kachin and northern Shan states, with the daily cost to provide food, clothing, and medicine to the camps’ population of nearly 150,000 amounting to around 150,000,000 kyats (U.S.$96,000) a day, the KBC’s Human Resource Development Department said.

Thirteen new camps in Kachin’s Hpakant, Waingmaw, Momauk, Bhamo, and Ingyanyan townships are taking in the 3,000 Kachin refugees displaced in the last three months. At the same time, more than 6,000 mostly ethnic Shan refugees from Momauk have taken shelter in eight monasteries in nearby villages after fighting flared in their area beginning April 10.

“There are about 6,000 at the Bhamo Tagun Daing monastery [alone],” a resident of Momauk’s Zee Kaw village said, adding, “Currently, only farmers and those people who have jobs are now left [in their home villages.]

Speaking to RFA, Abbot Waushang, a Buddhist monk, called on Myanmar’s military, referred to as the Tatmadaw, to lift its blockade on Kachin state roads “so that donations can flow freely to the refugees, since this war was started by the Tatmadaw itself.”

“This would alleviate a lot of pain and suffering, and none of the young people who are doing this humanitarian work are concerned about politics,” he said.

KIA information officer Col. Naw Bu acknowledged the work being done by religious groups to help those displaced by the fighting in Kachin, adding, “It is a bit inconvenient for us to go into the [townships] to help them ourselves.”

“In any case, the KIA is an organization that stands with the people, and if there are problems, we will do everything we possibly can to help them," he said.

Camps need major repairs

In western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where war raged for about two years until a November 2020 ceasefire, more than 46,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are living in refugee camps with most of their shelters needing major repairs as the monsoon season approaches, state officials and humanitarian groups say.

“When we made a survey, we found that around 70 percent of the camps were in extremely poor shape, with roofs and shelters badly damaged, and about 30 percent of them in a state of near collapse,” Zaw Zaw Tun, secretary of the Rakhine Nationalities Association (REC), told RFA.

The tents in around 40 of Rakhine’s 141 camps are now damaged, Zaw Zaw Tun said.

More than 2,000 people in 400 families live in the Zaydi Byin camp for internally displaced persons in Rakhine’s Rathedaung township, said Moung Saw Win, who works in the camp.

“[But] this camp was originally built as a temporary measure, so it will surely be in very bad shape this year,” he said.

In the Nyaung Chaung IDP camp in Kyauktaw township, where more than 3,000 refugees are now sheltering, buildings are also damaged, said camp administrator Khine Myo Aung.

“In the past, I have seen families sitting huddled in one corner when it rains at night because the roofs and siding are damaged, and we’re facing the same situation again now,” he said.

More than 800 of the camp’s shelters were built in with bamboo and tarpaulins by civil society organizations using funds from private donors and the U.N. refugee agency in February 2019 following fighting between the Tatmadaw and the ethnic Arakan Army, and are now in disrepair, he said.

The Ann Thar IDP camp in Rakhine’s Minbya township—home to over 700 people coming from more than 140 households in Phar Pyo and Thalu Chaung villages—is also in need of major repairs and is not ready for the coming rainy season, said camp official Ann Thar Gyi.

“The shelters were already not strong when they were first built, and so it is unthinkable for them to go through another rainy season,” he said. “When it rains, you can’t stay inside.”

REC Secretary Zaw Zaw Tun told RFA that Myanmar’s military, working in cooperation with international organizations and civil society groups, should take a key role in repairing the houses in the camps.

Asked whether the military’s ruling State Administration Council in Rakhine will provide assistance to the state’s refugee camps, Rakhine State Attorney General Hla Thein said that help will be provided if the refugees ask for it.

“We have a full budget for essential items for the refugees,” Hla Thein said. “For example, if their roofs are blown away by wind, the camp will not have to spend its own money. We can help them right away.”

“It’s the same with the sidings and other things. We have no need to hold back,” he said.

Camp officials said however that their requests for help in last year’s rainy season were never met, and that they won’t be asking again.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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