AS the ongoing violence in northern Burma (Myanmar) intensifies, there is growing concern for the thousands of displaced civilians who are unable to escape the armed conflict.
The latest round of violence between Burma’s armed forces and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) initially erupted in June 2011, after a 17-year-long ceasefire was broken by the Burmese army launching a surprise offence on several KIA outposts near a Chinese-financed hydro-power dam.
Since 2011, it is estimated that 120,000 ethnic civilians have been displaced, with most of these individuals now residing in makeshift camps across the remote mountains in Kachin State.
At the time of Burma’s historic elections, which saw the transition to a democratically-elected government, there were pledges to bring peace to the country and put an end to the armed conflicts, which had for decades devastated ethnic communities.
However, contrary to these pledges, the violence in Kachin State has actually intensified with the Burmese army deploying increasingly sophisticated weaponry on the ground and from the air.
In recent months, Russian-made helicopter gunships, heavy artillery acquired from China, mortar bombs, as well as 250kg parachute-retarded bombs – similar to those used during the siege of Aleppo in Syria – have been used by government forces across areas controlled by ethnic groups.
In early December 2016, the Burmese military reportedly bombed churches, schools, and other non-military targets in northern Shan State. In Kachin, areas close to the Zai Awng IDP camp came under fire with several mortar shells, leading an estimated 2,560 internally displaced people (IDPs) to flee the camps in fear.
On Jan 10, around 4,000 civilians fled from airstrikes and heavy artillery attacks in the Nagyang area. According to the Joint Strategy Team (JST), an organisation that provides humanitarian assistance to the IDPs, displaced civilians from the nearby camps fled across the border into China at approximately 4am on Jan 11.
Gum Sha Awng from JST reported:
“IDPs from the camp scrambled and ran away … They have been hearing the sound of airstrikes and seeing the explosions for weeks.”
These events were further confirmed by Dashi Naw Lawn, secretary of the Kachin Network Development Foundation who told AFP: “The Myanmar army used planes to attack the area around Laiza,” adding,“The fighting is getting worse and worse.”
However, shortly after dawn on Jan 11, Chinese state security forces began turning back refugees and forcibly returned those who had crossed the border during the night.
The UN’s relief agency said that 2,700 displaced people have now moved to new camps because of these most recent clashes, but the agency warned there were not sufficient resources to protect them from the cold temperatures experienced in this region during winter.
The lack of humanitarian aid available to civilians is being made worse by Burmese authorities restricting humanitarian groups from operating freely in Kachin State and northern Shan State. These actions are resulting in avoidable deprivations of food, healthcare, and other humanitarian provisions for displaced communities.
During her most recent visit to Burma, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Yanghee Lee, was also denied access to conflict-affected areas in Kachin and Shan state.
As the group’s chief executive officer Matthew Smith explained: “China should provide asylum seekers with sanctuary, not send them into the line of fire. The Myanmar military is effectively forcing civilians out of the country while China pushes them back in.”Given the worsening situation in northern Burma, human rights groups, such as Fortify Rights, are calling on the Chinese government to ensure protection for civilians fleeing the conflict.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, China is legally bound to facilitate the right to asylum and ensure protection for refugees. Furthermore, returning asylum seekers to a conflict zone without properly assessing the risks is a violation of China’s obligations under international law.
The escalating conflict in Burma and the inability to escape the violence, is creating a sense of desperation among Kachin communities living in the conflict zone.
Speaking to Fortify Rights, a 20-year old displaced Kachin man living in Pa Kahtawng IDP camp voiced his fears, “If a mortar falls in this camp and there is fighting around us, where will we flee? There will be nowhere for us to run. I’m afraid the Chinese government won’t accept us. Whenever there is fighting around here, the border is full of Chinese soldiers and they won’t allow anyone to pass.”
After almost two decades of relative peace, the Kachin State is facing a violent armed combat which is destroying impoverished communities.
With the government preventing necessary emergency supplies from reaching IDP camps, the situation is set to get worse and it is predicted that more displaced civilians will seek refugee in China out of desperation, although Chinese authorities are unlikely to change their stance towards refugees anytime soon.
Unfortunately, the humanitarian crisis in Kachin is being overshadowed by the unrest in Burma’s Rakhine State and until the global community begins to pressure Aung San Suu Kyi’s government about the plight of civilians caught in the crossfire of the Kachin conflict, the Burmese army will continue its assaults unabated.