Nov 26, 2012

Myanmar - The continuing cold reality of Burma’s Kachin conflict

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High up in the mountainous border region where Burma meets China, more than 70,000 displaced Kachin are bracing themselves for cold season. The plywood shelters in refugee camps, likely still recovering from the monsoon season, are no match for the end-of-year weather when temperatures dip to single figures.

It’s all depressingly familiar – the same warnings were issued a year ago, and today refugee numbers have not diminished, nor has the government’s reluctance to allow international aid groups unfettered access to victims of the conflict. They, and millions of others in the country, know little of the heady developments of the past 12 months in Burma.

An issue often overlooked in coverage of Burma’s various conflicts is the psychological toll that those forced to flee their homes carry, but IRIN last week spoke with local aid worker May Li Awng who spelled out the situation.

“Some students have no interest in schooling and are refusing to go to school. They are listless – gazing somewhere. At night, they cry and sleep-walk.” May Li Awng directs the WPN umbrella group of Kachin NGOs who, given the woeful lack of outside assistance getting to the refugees, have essentially spearheaded the aid effort. They deserve great respect for their work.

Some estimate that around 50 percent of displaced Kachin are suffering from trauma. “We don’t have the human resources to heal such traumatized cases,” May Li Awng told IRIN. “All of the groups [donors] are just interested in giving material assistance. Few are interested in such issues.”

Other aid workers told me of similar concerns when I was there in June this year. La Rip, coordinator of the Relief Action Network for Internally Displaced Persons and Refugees (RANIR), based in Laiza, said that reductions in outside funding had forced them to concentrate on the primary concerns of physical health and food supplies. This means that for many, young children especially, their trauma is left to fester.

He said that local aid workers were either too overrun or unequipped to tackle the psychological problems emerging among the displaced. A year ago he warned: “We are at our wit’s end. If we don’t get support within the next couple of weeks, there could be serious problems with food and shelter shortages and worsening weather.” Now, with no UN convoy having reached eastern Kachin state since July, the same situation presents itself.

Aside from the fighting itself, the treatment of civilians by Burmese troops will have left deep scars. When the conflict first erupted in June 2011, various reports told of gang rapes and mutilation of Kachin women by soldiers, torture of males considered collaborators with the Kachin Independence Army, and so on. This has not stopped - a mother of four was reportedly gang raped near the town of Mogaung in Kachin state on 1 November by Burmese soldiers. (See here for a past blog post on the Burma army’s use of rape as a weapon of war).

Moreover, children were often forced to flee their homes amid gunfire and walk days to reach safer ground, many getting ill along the way. They remain confined to refugee camps in a tormenting state of limbo.

Funding clearly needs to be ramped up. President Obama touched on the conflict during his speech at Rangoon University last week, but one hopes he pressed for greater international access and an end to attacks by the Burmese army when he met privately with President Thein Sein. The ethno-religious violence in Arakan state will have distracted from Kachin state, but both situations require urgent attention.

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