Shan minority refugees in northern Burma’s war-torn Kachin state are in dire need of relief supplies in a region already reeling from a shortage of basic necessities needed to sustain tens of thousands of displaced people, a Buddhist monk said Wednesday.
Wah Shoung Sayadaw, a monk from the largely Buddhist Shan ethnic group, said that around 10,000 Shan refugees in Myitkyina district’s Waingmaw township have been living in harsh conditions since fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military surged in recent months.
“They are having to get used to living in these troubling conditions,” the monk told RFA’s Burmese Service.
“The refugees have some hope as they have heard that peace talks are under way, but for now, trouble is their constant companion.”
Tens of thousands of people have fled the fighting since June 2011 when a 17-year cease-fire agreement between the KIA and the Burmese military was shattered.
In early February, after more than a month of particularly fierce fighting, officials from the Burmese government and the KIA met for talks brokered by Beijing and agreed to hold another round of talks with the aim of reaching a "strong cease-fire," but tensions between the two sides remain.
Shan community leaders say around 20,000 members of their ethnic group have been displaced by the fighting in Kachin state, where Shan tribes have lived for centuries. Around 300,000 Shan live in Kachin state, which is home to about 1.2 million people.
Wah Shoung Sayadaw said that many of the refugee organizations in Kachin state are Christian-backed and focus only on providing aid to the largely Christian Kachin population. He said that members of the Shan community were also reluctant to take up offers to join Kachin refugee camps because they prefer to stay with their own ethnic group.
“People around the country think that there are only Kachin in Kachin state, but there are mostly Kachin and Shan in the area. Ethnic Kachin are very involved with the media and have a good relationship with nongovernmental organizations,” the monk said.
“We, Shan, are farmers and Buddhists … So, there are differences between us. Although it is said that we are brothers and sisters, it is difficult to live together as we have different religions. Kachin Christians go to churches and Shan Buddhists go to monasteries,” he said.
“[As a result] we are suffering because we don’t have access to health care, education, and treatment for the elderly.”
Wah Shoung Sayadaw said that his monastery had been giving cash donations to Shan refugees in the area of around 1,000 kyats (U.S. $1.50) each and providing them “with everything that they request, as much as is within our power.”
He said that while he had been helping both the Shan and Kachin communities, preferential treatment was reserved for members of his own ethnic group.
“We feel that the Christian community has benefited from much development. There are fewer NGOs helping the Shan, so we are experiencing greater hardship than the Kachin,” he said.
“I feel this way without love or hate. We are helping all refugees—both Kachin and Shan. But, honestly, I am helping the Shan more than the Kachin because the Shan need more help.”
Wah Shoung Sayadaw urged international NGOs to “be more aware” of the Shan displaced by fighting in Kachin state.
The monk’s call to relief groups came as the United Nations and several other organizations traveled this week to a remote part of Kachin state carrying much-needed aid to thousands of Kachin refugees from Hpakant and Lonekin living in camps outside of Hpakant.
The visit on Sunday followed reports that the refugees had been forced to leave their camps in search of basic necessities from their abandoned homes, only to find that many of them had been ransacked by looters.
Aye Win, the press officer for the U.N.’s Rangoon branch, told RFA’s Burmese Service that staff were visiting dozens of camps in the area which house around 5,000 refugees.
“One U.N. group went to Hpakant. There are 41 refugee camps in the area,” Aye Win said, adding that the group’s mission is to provide relief goods and to investigate the situation of the refugees.
“[In total] the U.N. group is delivering 93 tons of relief goods—mainly rice, cooking oil, beans, basic medication, mosquito nets, blankets, and tablets to clean water.”
Tin Soe, a member of parliament from Lonekin with Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) opposition party, confirmed that a number of relief groups had arrived at the Hpakant camps.
“Staff from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), and the World Food Programme (WFP) came and visited the refugee camps today,” Tin Soe told RFA on Tuesday.
“They have interviewed several refugees about their situation in the camps. They are asking which organizations have visited and provided relief goods,” he said, adding that the convoy included seven trucks carrying aid supplies and three vehicles carrying relief workers.
Last week, Colonel Zaw Twet of the KIA, which is fighting for greater autonomy in Burma, said that refugees had complained of a lack of basic necessities, such as clothing and other goods for daily use.
He said government troops in control of the Kachin capital Myitkyina had recently refused to allow aid trucks from the U.N. to travel to camps outside the city to provide relief supplies to the refugees.
Without access to the U.N.-backed aid, he said, many of the refugees had been forced to travel home, outside the safety of the camps, in the hopes of retrieving their own supplies.
But on returning to their villages, the refugees found that their homes had been entered and looted, and all their possessions taken.
The Irrawaddy online newspaper quoted Aye Win as saying that the U.N. had held discussions with the government and the KIA since January to ensure safe passage of its aid delivery.
“Currently they are in Hpakant, we plan to go to other areas too … But it depends on the security condition of the area and permission to travel,” he said. “The security matter on the way remains important.”
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.