Kachin: Thousands of Internally Displaced Persons face uncertain future

14/02/2014 – Take-off from Bangkok at 8am, touchdown 2pm in the small airport of Bhamo in war-torn Southern Kachin State, Myanmar/Burma. The trip from the glittering skyscrapers of Thailand’s capital to the small riverside trading town of Bhamo symbolises both the progress and the challenges of Myanmar/Burma’s transformation in the past three years.

It may be easy to travel to isolated regions of this once deeply closed society, but the team from the European Commission visiting the displaced camps in government-held areas still needed special travel authorisations just to get off the small commercial flight in Bhamo.

And while investors and tourists rush in, peace negotiations between the central government and the Kachin representatives grind on, accompanied by sporadic fighting symbolising the intractable nature of this conflict – just one of several ethnic conflicts along Myanmar/Burma’s Eastern border.

Straddling the border of China, Kachin State is three times the size of Belgium and has a population of around 1.4 million. Renewed fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese army began in June 2011, and continued throughout 2012. As of 9 October 2012, over 100 000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) had taken shelter in various camps across Kachin and Northern Shan states. The majority of IDPs (estimated at 70 000) is currently finding shelter in territories controlled by KIA – Kachin Independence Army.

Most IDPs in government-controlled areas have found shelter at properties of several Christian churches, especially the Kachin Baptist Convention and the Catholic Church. A number of international organisations such as the UNHCR, WFP and several international NGOs have received significant EU funding to provide humanitarian aid to the IDPs. The European Commission Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department ECHO has provided some €14.5 million for 2012-2013, which has been used primarily to provide shelter, clean drinking water, food and sanitation to the IDPs. Access remains one of the main challenges as the government often denies travel authorisations for international aid agencies.

However, when the European Commission’s team visited the area, it was able to join a three-truck convoy organised by WFP bringing much needed food supplies to several hundred IDP households living in and around the border town of Lwege. This trading post lies right on the Chinese border and the influence of this huge neighbour is undeniable. All signs are in Chinese, the currency is the Yuan, and shops and trucks are loaded with low-price Chinese goods.

In one church compound in the village, several bunkhouses provide shelter to 100 000 IDP families who fled the fighting over the past two years. Camp leader Maludi is concerned about the cramped conditions: “We struggle to keep this place clean”, she explains. “Our biggest concern is the water supply during the winter when there is no rain and springs can run dry.” For now, basic humanitarian needs are being covered by the international community and the local authorities in the government-controlled areas.

There is great concern about the conditions in the camps in non-government controlled areas which are virtually sealed off by the government. Reports indicate that some supplies are getting in from across the border with China.

Back in Bhamo, life appears normal and calm. Yet, there is a subtle but distinct presence of military and civilian security everywhere. There have been attacks at the outskirts of Bhamo as recently as three months ago. Insecurity is one of the major reasons why many of the Kachin IDPs refuse to even consider returning to their original villages. “I had to flee with my child in the middle of the night when the soldiers arrived” explains Daw Tin Aye. “I am just too scared for the lives of my three children.”