Humanitarian crisis looms in Kachin conflict
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It has been about two weeks since Myanmar President Thein Sein ordered a ceasefire yet the fighting persists around the Chinese border town of Laiza, home to the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headquarters.
There have been several attempts at cease-fires none of which actually brought an end to the fighting. While President Thein Sein courts favorable international opinion, the recent rebuttal of the US Embassy statement over its deep concern of the war in Kachin state shows the sensitive nature of the situation for the government.
The conflict is showing the limits to the current transition in Myanmar, which won’t make happy reading for potential foreign investors seeking to better understand the country. While the president may issue a cease-fire it is unclear whether he is complicit or irrelevant to the current tatmadaw (army) incursions in Kachin state.
Either way, what is clear is that the presidential word is not reflective of practices on the ground wherever the sticking point is.
The lack of reliable information coming out of Kachin state makes the challenges to peace difficult to assess. Whether or not the tatmadaw decides to capture or strangle Laiza there is already a humanitarian disaster in the making. An estimated 100,000 people have fled the fighting; many finding refuge in church compounds, also known as IDP camps or staying with family members.
In situations of war, borders don’t matter, people flee to where they can find safety whether legal or not. Others have found refuge in Northern Shan state or even, for a while, across the border in China.
However, many of these refugees were tossed out by local police authorities tearing down their shelters essentially forcing them back into the conflict zone.
However the recent peace protests in Yunnan province have sparked increased awareness and understanding of the Jingpo — the Kachin in China — which has resulted in a more accommodating policy for those fleeing the fighting but many are reluctant to try for fear of being forced back into the line of fire.
Those who have made the IDP camps their refuge are in dire need of assistance with a recent civil society activist noting that very many IDP camps do not even meet the Sphere standards — the basics of humanitarian assistance. With the shelters built in close proximity to one another the stage is set for fast and furious spread of disease.
Since August last year, IDP camps have had to deal with widespread diarrhea and this remains a central challenge six months on. While international assistance has started to arrive in government-controlled areas, barriers to distribution remain as a result of army checkpoints throughout Kachin state.
Since July 2012 the government has prevented international assistance in KIA-controlled areas which is home to around 40,000 civilians in two IDP camps on the outskirts of Laiza.
The situation in Kachin state remains desperate for so many people directly affected by the war, their steely resolve and ability to self-organize in harsh conditions is admirable.
The prospect for peace, however, remains an elusive goal for the time being but with greater international awareness and pressure on resolving the political issues through transparent negotiations it can bring resolution to the conflict that has affected so many.
The writer is a visiting research fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. The views expressed here remain his own.