Estimated 70,000 Kachin war refugees living in camps by Sino-Burmese borders survive on local donations as international charities are unwilling or unable to gain access.
LAIZA, Kachin State—With headlights dimmed it is difficult to spot every rubble-strewn crest-and-wave in time, and the surrounding dark enhances the jolts from the bumps and hollows in the coiling road from Laiza to Jeyang camp.
It is just a 15 minute drive from Laiza—headquarters of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO)—to Jeyang, site of the largest camp for the estimated 70,000 people driven from their homes by fighting in the region.
The current conflict began in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire between the KIO and Burmese government. The Jeyang camp sits a stone’s throw from the Burma-China border, marked by a river of the same name, and in what in daytime is sun-lit valley floor, walled off on either side by haze-topped, tree-lined slopes.
The sun, as it turns out, keeps the camp lit at night as well. Pointing to the somewhat faint street lamps, arranged at 10-yard intervals either side of the road through the camp, Kachin activist San Naw said “the KIO got those lamps from China. They are solar-powered and charge up during the day so there’s some light in the camp at night.”
The previous morning, Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) varnished newly-made latrine huts, while nearby hundreds of children attended a camp school run by teachers
who fled the same villages as the rest of the 5,600 population.
Headmaster Hkun San escaped Ban Dawng village, 20 miles from Laiza, as Burmese troops approached in August 2011. “We do not have enough classroom space here, and we have only 32 teachers for 1,056 students,” he said.
The camp is managed and largely-funded by the KIO, although officials such as KIO Relief Committee head Labang Doi Pyi Sang are reluctant to talk up the group’s work with IDPs, saying they are just doing what they can to help.
“We try as much as we can to replicate their village life here,” he says, pointing to the wood-and-bamboo buildings close by. A school, clinic and market lie to the left, with Baptist and Catholic churches to the right. The mostly Christian Kachins are an ethnic minority who number around one million people living in Burma’s northern reaches.
Local NGOs are supplementing the KIO effort. At Mai Ja Yang, another KIO stronghold on the China border but several hours drive from Laiza, there are around 5,000 IDPs from northern Shan State. Some stay at accommodation intended for Chinese casino workers who fled soon after the onset of fighting last summer.
Hkawng Nan, a 19-year-old nurse working at a temporary clinic set up to assist IDPs in Mai Ja Yang, said, “we don’t always have enough things and sometimes have to send people to the hospital when we run out.” In the IDP camp nearby, children show signs of skin infection, said Nag Zing Bawkwa, a doctor at Mai Ja Yang Hospital. “We see many cases of diarrhea and respiratory conditions,” he adds.
Some of the displaced now staying around Mai Ja Yang are supported by Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN), a local NGO. “We are trying to look after 20,000 IDPs,” says Maran Tu, the WPN vice-chairman at her office in Mai Ja Yang.
WPN is part of a network called Relief Action Network for IDP and Refugees (RANIR) which is headed by La Rip. He told The Irrawaddy that the bulk of money for the relief effort comes from the KIO and other Kachin organizations. “Forty percent is from the KIO and another 20 percent from Kachins in China, the USA, Thailand, the UK and more still from Kachin church groups,” he explains.
He says that the relief effort has been mostly unsupported from outside, aside from diaspora Kachin, adding that “we have spent around 500 million kyat in helping the IDPs.”
“We have received some small donations,” he says, “but the INGOs [international NGOs] say that we don’t have the capacity here to work to their international standards, and they would like to come here and do the work themselves.”
RANIR’s office telephone number is written on a note posted at eye-level beside the main door at the KIO headquarters. In rebel-held Kachin areas, the dividing line between the KIO and NGOs is not so clear—a nexus in keeping with what is often the case in territories where civil conflict takes place.
La Rip is aware of this dilemma, which frequently comes up in policy and academic debates on delivering international humanitarian assistance to war zones. The UN and INGOs often operate in rebel-held areas around the globe, or work in tandem with local NGOs in locations where “complete independence” is not assured or clear.
Barbara Manzi is head of the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN-OCHA) in Rangoon. Speaking by telephone, she says that the UN is currently discussing ways to access all areas of Kachin State where IDPs are located.
“We are aware that various local partners have done good work,” she says, adding that “it is not correct to make judgments about one organization or another.”
“The international NGOs are concerned about impartiality,” says La Rip. “They think that we are too close to the KIO.” But, he asks, “What option do we have? The UN is not here, the NGOs are not here. Only the KIO has the trucks and the money to bring supplies to the camps, up high in the mountains. Should we just leave the IDPs alone, and not help, just to try prove some sort of ‘independence’?”
“We [the KIO] have spent two billion kyat on helping the 46,000 IDPs already,” says Labang Doi Pyi Sa.“There are over 30 camps in our territory, but some are up in the mountains where it is cold and hard to reach. It is a big burden and impossible for us to take care of the IDPs on our own.”
Barbara Manzi acknowledges that “the existing conditions for humanitarian work are challenging,” adding that the looming monsoon season, due in April, will make aid work even more difficult. So with no end to the fighting in sight, and the rainy season approaching, the needs of IDPs will likely grow.
“We will need more plastic and tarpaulins for shelter,” says Maran Tu. “And more medical supplies, as the rain will bring disease.”
Pointing to the several families gathered in the WPN yard, collecting their twice-monthly ration of rice, oil, salt, soya beans, dry fish and soap, he adds that “right now we need around 100,000 yuan per day just to feed the 20,000 IDPs we support.”
The Irrawaddy sought comment from Oxfam and Trócaire (the Irish section of Caritas, the Catholic Church’s humanitarian and development agency) as two NGOs that have contributed to helping Kachin IDPs. However, neither organization replied by the time of publication.Show