Aid must be on the agenda at Burma-Kachin peace talks

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This month, the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) will hold their second round of negotiations so far this year. The long-running Kachin conflict has resulted in more than 100,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), and a permanent cease-fire between the parties is desperately needed. Without it, tens of thousands of civilians will remain cut off from life-saving assistance.

A cease-fire, however, would be just the first step toward a sustainable peace agreement. The Kachin conflict has gone through many hot and cold phases over 66 years, and both parties will have to work hard to break out of that cycle.

The Kachin are made up of six different ethnic sub-groups – both Christian and Buddhist – and they reside mainly in the mountainous Kachin State in northeastern Burma. They have remained fiercely independent for hundreds of years and never submitted to direct British or Burmese administration. In 1947, when Burma gained its independence, the Kachin and two other minority groups (the Chin and the Shan) signed the Panglong Agreement, which established the principle of limited regional autonomy. The Kachin have accused successive governments of violating this agreement, and they have taken up arms repeatedly to demand full federalism, ethnic rights, and self-determination. Open conflict between the KIO's armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and Burmese forces began in 1961 and continued until 1994, when a truce was entered into with the Burmese military regime. Under this truce, the KIO was allowed to maintain its own administrative and military infrastructure in certain areas. But tension began to build again in 2008, when the junta pushed through a new constitution establishing a unitary state and a centralized system of governance. The central government was keen to develop Kachin State's resources - particularly in the area of hydro-electric power - and sought to enforce greater control over the area.

The cease-fire finally ended in June 2011 over opposition to a particularly large, Chinese-funded hydro-electric dam project. Local residents feared that the project would damage the environment, lead to displacement, and destroy their livelihoods and culture, while the KIO viewed the buildup of Burmese troops near the dam as a threat.

The subsequent violence has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The Burmese military is said to have attacked Kachin villages, pillaged property, committed rape and extortion, tortured prisoners during interrogations, conscripted child soldiers, and engaged in forced labor. Unfortunately, the Kachin rebels are also known for using child soldiers and forcing civilians to work as porters, cooks, and landmine sweepers.

As the violence intensified, civilians fled in search of safety and humanitarian aid, with many seeking refuge in neighboring China. Shockingly, in August 2012, many of these refugees were forced back into the war zone by Chinese authorities, in violation of the international refugee law principal known as non-refoulement.

Fallout from the Kachin conflict has been intensely felt in China. Beijing is keen to invest in more hydro-power projects in the region, but cannot do so while the fighting continues. Shells have also fallen onto Chinese territory, and the government fears that fighting could spill across the border. Beijing has therefore put pressure on Burmese President Thein Sein to reach an agreement with the KIO.

China hosted the first round of talks between the government and the KIO on February 4th in the border town of Ruili, and the next round of talks could be held as soon as this week. It is critical that both parties take this opportunity to address access to humanitarian assistance. Specifically, they must resolve the security, administrative, and logistical issues preventing emergency humanitarian aid from reaching vulnerable populations. RI calls on the parties to fully cooperate with local and international aid groups assisting IDPs, and to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict that respects the rights of all Burmese citizens.

RI visited camps sheltering IDPs in government-controlled areas of Kachin State in December 2011. These camps were in very poor condition and lacked proper shelter, sanitation, clean water, and access to healthcare. Most humanitarian aid to these camps has been blocked by the Burmese government since December 2012, while the camps in KIA-held areas remain entirely off-limits for aid agencies. This lack of assistance has left the region's displaced in dire need of food, clean water, shelter, warm clothing, medicine, and medical supplies.

It may take many months to forge a full peace agreement between these long-time adversaries. The region’s IDPs, however, cannot wait that long, so a cease-fire and an agreement on humanitarian access must be struck now.