Displaced from Kokang: The plight of Myanmar's IDPs

Galay Ma and her husband, who were displaced by fighting in Myanmar's Kokang region, sit in a shelter at a Buddhist monastery in the Shan State town of Lashio. Photo by: Simon Lewis

Ongoing fighting in the northeast of Myanmar is making headlines as it threatens to spark a diplomatic incident with neighboring China. But the conflict may also be setting up a humanitarian crisis along a border to which international aid agencies have long struggled to gain access.

China has accused Myanmar’s armed forces of dropping a bomb on its side of the border that killed four rural villagers and injured nine on March 13. Myanmar has denied the allegation, saying instead that the rebels it is fighting in the Kokang region of northern Shan State could have been responsible.

The incident marks the most serious spillover of the conflict that has raged since Feb. 9, with Myanmar deploying helicopter gunships and jets and claiming the rebel Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army also possesses heavy arms, including anti-aircraft weapons — but notably not aircraft.

With tens of thousands of people displaced or in areas affected by the fighting, international humanitarian actors face challenges accessing the area as their activities in both Myanmar and China are restricted.

The fighting sent tens of thousands of the ethnic Chinese Kokang population fleeing east across the border to China’s Yunnan province. Meanwhile, more than 10,000 people, mostly migrant workers from other parts of Myanmar, have fled westward.

Some migrants, however, found themselves trapped by the fighting.

Galay Ma, a migrant worker from central Myanmar, said she and a group of almost 200 others were trapped in Kokang only weeks after arriving there to work on a sugar cane plantation. The plantation’s Chinese owner fled immediately, but the workers were left to fend for themselves, she said.

According to Galay Ma, some MNDAA rebels came across the group, and escorted the workers to a main road, where they were left to be picked up by the Myanmar military. Eventually they were taken to the major northern Shan State town of Lashio, where she spoke at a Buddhist monastery housing internally displaced persons.

Kokang closed off — even to Red Cross

Aid workers say that small groups of displaced people are still finding their way out of the region each day. But international aid agencies were not operating in the region before the conflict, and have not been able to gain access since.

That has left the Myanmar government with a firm grip over information in the region, and meant that claims of human rights abuses against civilians cannot be verified.

Even the Myanmar Red Cross Society, which has close ties to the government and initially was helping to transport civilians away from the fighting, no longer has access after two convoys flagged with the Red Cross were attacked on the roads in the area. The government said rebels were responsible, and has declared a state of emergency, closing outside access to area completely and giving the military total legal authority over Kokang.

Even so, MRCS still tries to help as many IDPs as it could.

“We are continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to the displaced people from the Kokang area, mostly in Lashio and Kunlong,” MRCS spokeswoman Shwe Cin Myint told Devex.

Kunlong, a town just outside the Kokang region, is where the aid group is operating a camp to handle new refugees. That camp has received more than 7,000 IDPs since Feb. 11, and small numbers of people continue to arrive as of Feb. 17, she said. MRCS also has a presence in Laukkai, the main town in Kokang that saw pitched battles on its streets last month.

“We are in the community there [in Laukkai],” Shwe Cin Myint said. “Myanmar Red Cross local volunteers are based there and they are still providing some assistance.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross has been supporting the unit as well, according to Michael O’Brien, a spokesman for the international organization’s office in Yangon. ICRC was also to carry out an assessment trip, he said, with local staff able to travel as far as Kunlong.

“Our teams have included resident and expatriate health staff and we are endeavoring to see what we can do to assist,” O’Brien told Devex.

Fears China might send back IDPs

The number of refugees who fled to China is unclear, and estimates have varied from 30,000 to more than 100,000.

Photographs published March 18 by the Chinese Communist Party-run People’s Daily show rows of blue tents near the border provided by Chinese official aid agencies. Many refugees are also thought to be staying with local people in China.

“In the spirit of humanitarianism, China has provided the Myanmar refugees with some relief, including water and medical services, and put up tents for them in Lincang [in Yunnan province],” the People’s Daily reported.

Observers believe that since most of the new refugees are part of the ethnic Han, Mandarin-speaking Kokang community, they are being treated well in China. There is considerable sympathy for their cause among Chinese, and on social media nationalist anger is being vented against China’s government for not taking a stronger stance against Myanmar in the conflict.

But Kokang is not the only war-torn region of Myanmar to abut the Chinese border.

Myanmar’s army has been fighting more than a dozen different ethnic armies at its peripheries since it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1948. In the past four years, the most serious conflict — until last month — has been the war in the resource-rich northern Kachin State.

More than 7,000 ethnic Kachin refugees fled into China when a 17-year cease-fire between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army broke down in June 2011. But the following year, Chinese authorities reportedly forced the refugees back across the border, into an active war-zone.

Some fear that the new refugees from Kokang may meet a similar short-lived welcome in China if the region does not return to peace soon. If they are returned, they may face some of the same access difficulties experienced by the Kachin further north.

‘Sustained, predictable and flexible access’ needed

About 100,000 people are currently living in temporary camps, having been displaced from that conflict that has spread across Kachin State and into northern Shan State, pulling in other ethnic groups also fighting the government.

About half of the displaced are in border areas not under Myanmar government control, and therefore beyond the reach of many international aid agencies, some which have agreements with Myanmar but are not authorized to reach the camps and are not permitted to travel through China.

For the mostly Christian Kachin, religious organizations have stepped into the breach, with the Kachin Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church’s Karuna Myanmar Social Services providing shelter, food and other supplies to IDP camps in both government- and rebel-controlled areas.

With access to the camps through China restricted, the United Nations until September 2014 sent regular missions to the border. But the so-called cross-line missions rely on the Myanmar government’s approval, and for the past six months that approval was withheld. Tricky negotiations took place amid stalling nationwide cease-fire talks, with a major setback in November when a Myanmar army shell killed 23 cadets belonging to various ethnic armed groups at the Kachin rebel headquarters on the Chinese border at Laiza.

The convoys finally resumed March 12, according to the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, after the Myanmar government granted authorization for international U.N. and NGO staff to visit eight camps along the border before April 30.

“We very much welcome the opportunity to conduct these cross-line missions, as the authorization comes just in time for humanitarian organizations to assist with much-needed shelter repairs, water and sanitation work, and other preparations for the upcoming rainy season, which begins in May,” Pierre Peron, OCHA’s spokesman in Yangon, told Devex.

The government has not granted comprehensive access, however. The missions will not take in Laiza, where five camps house some 19,000 IDPs, according to data from the U.N.’s Myanmar Information Management Unit updated in February.

“While authorization for joint interagency convoys to Laiza has not been granted this time, some humanitarian organizations have had access to Laiza in recent months through bilateral authorizations with their respective line ministries,” the OCHA official said.

Peron stressed that while physical aid is part of the missions’ delivery, they also bring expertise and the opportunity to meet with IDP communities and assess their needs. Local NGOs — supported by international organizations — had been and would continue to provide the bulk of support to the border camps, he said, but the lack of international access “has resulted in gaps in the quality and quantity of the humanitarian response.”

“More sustained, predictable and flexible access by humanitarian organizations to all affected communities in Kachin and northern Shan states is essential in order to adequately meet the needs of all people affected by the conflict,” Peron concluded.

Is your organization working in conflict areas? What was your experience like delivering aid in areas with limited or restricted access? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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About the author

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    Simon Lewis

    Simon Lewis is a freelance journalist covering Southeast Asia. Following a stint as business editor of The Cambodia Daily newspaper in Phnom Penh, he has been based since 2013 in Yangon, where he also worked as an editor and reporter for The Irrawaddy news magazine. He has reported on development, business, human rights and religion in the region.