Friday, November 29, 2013

Burma: Camp fatigue as IDPs wait for Myanmar ceasefire

Photo: Steve Sandford/IRIN. Children outside an IDP camp in KIA-controlled Kachin State

MAI JA YANG, 28 November 2013 (IRIN) - The hopes of many in Myanmar’s Kachin state hang on peace talks among government officials and representatives of the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC), an alliance of ethnic armed groups that includes the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The most recent round, being held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, is expected to conclude shortly.

At Pah Kahtawng camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs), across the Burmese border near the town of Mai Ja Yang, the hunger for knowledge and stability of the children gathered in a makeshift library matches their longing to return home.

“At least this centre gives the kids something to occupy their time and take their thoughts away from many of the bad things that have happened to their families,” says the head librarian Ton Goon, 35, a former soldier whose left leg was crippled by a landmine.

Doo Sum Hlu, 40, a mother of three who has been living in the Nhkawng IDP camp since 19 November 2011, hopes the meetings in neighbouring Chiang Mai will help her get back to her deserted farm.

“We hear about the talks of peace but I still cannot go back to my village because there are Burmese [government] forces still there and most of our land is being wasted because we have not been able to cultivate it properly.” Like many other farmers, she will have to re-till the soil and begin the growing cycle for her crops again.

More than two years after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy for the past six decades, skirmishes with government forces continue despite ongoing peace talks in both Thailand and Myanmar.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), close to 100,000 people remain displaced as a result of fighting in Kachin and northern Shan State, more than half of whom are in KIA-controlled areas.

On 18 November, Kachin activists and NGOs called for an immediate end to clashes, and for the protection of citizens caught in areas where fighting is still occurring.

“We insist that all parties to the conflict [Myanmar government armed forces and the KIA] respect international humanitarian law and human rights, in particular the rights of civilians,” read a statement by nine civil society groups.

Skirmishes near Nam Lim Pa village (Mansi township in Kachin state) recently forced villagers and IDPs to flee. Since then, Burmese forces have isolated and surrounded this location.
Camp fatigue

Life in the camps may be safer but it is not always easier and camp fatigue is rising. “I'm tired of the suffering from the poor living conditions and having to remain in the camp. I want to be happy and return to my village and live a normal life again,” Sabaw Roi Ji, 70, quietly told IRIN. She has been at Pa Kahtawng IDP camp since 2011, and her main concern is the future of her 20 grandchildren, but camp officials say it is still too unsafe to go home.

Doi Pyi Sa, who oversees the government-supported KIO IDP and Refugee Relief Committee (IRRC) in Laiza, [in Kachin state on the Chinese border] said IDPs returning home, even for a few days, reportedly encounter problems with government forces. Military officials are limiting the travel time of refugees to check on their homes and farms to two or three days, Doi Pyi Sa said, and IDPs must get special travel permits.

“Since 10 October there has been an escalation in government troops entering areas where civilians are hoping to return and I am afraid that the increase in troop movement will provoke both sides, so it is very important that both sides take responsibility for not fighting at this time,” she said.

Yet breakthroughs are being made. For the first time in 20 months, a UN-led humanitarian convoy was allowed access to KIO-controlled Woi Chya camp in the capital of Laiza in August 2013, delivering 11 trucks of food, medicine and other aid to more than 4,000 people, according to OCHA.

Htu Raw, the Kachin Refugee Development Committee (KRDC) area coordinator, said the convoy was encouraging but stressed the need for more assessments in the non-government controlled areas of Kachin and northern Shan State, where more aid is needed.

To alleviate the growing depression and anxiety among the IDPs, the KRDC recently began providing psychosocial support in four camps near Laiza, the de facto capital of the KIO.

“Once a week in the camps we have activities for children such as singing, games and culture shows,” said Raw. “When the IDPs are separated from their long-time neighbours, they feel [they have] no support, so it is good to bring them together at the camps.”

A key demand in the newly drawn up Laiza Agreement - an 11-point common position shared by 18 ethnic resistance organizations regarding a nationwide ceasefire - is the guarantee of political dialogue with the government within months of a signed cease-fire.

The KIO is the only ethnic group yet to sign a recent ceasefire negotiated with the Myanmar government since fighting resumed in June 2011.

All sides are hoping an unprecedented nationwide cease-fire will be signed before the end of 2013.

The next round of talks is scheduled for December in the Karen state capital of Pa-a, bordering Thailand.