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Threat of renewed fighting sparks fresh flood of refugees in Myanmar

MYITKYINA (SE): “When the fighting starts again, it will be the ordinary people who suffer the most,” Nhkum Gam, told the Sunday Examiner from the Myitkyina, the capital of the Kachin state in the north of the Union of Myanmar, where violence flared in early July between the State Peace and Development Council (former name for the national government of Myanmar) and the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), an extremely strong separatist movement.

Although the two sides have been holding on-and-off ceasefire talks at the beginning of August, an observer at the meeting held in Laja Yang near the KIA headquarters, Jau Lazum, said that the independence movement no longer wants to make any agreement with the government in the national capital of Naypyidaw.

As a result, he believes the fighting will flare up again and the already crippling burden of refugees being carried by the Churches and local government agencies will be added to.

Gam said that although the bulk of the internally displaced people have fled to China or the areas near the border shared by the Kachin state and Yunnan province, Church facilities in and around Myitkyina are swamped with people seeking safety.

Fifty-year-old Nhkum Roi, from Nam San Yang village, said, “The government soldiers went to the houses and took everything. They killed the cows and the carabaos in the villages. She added that most people fled because they knew that fighting would be inevitable and they were afraid of being pressed into forced labour by the soldiers, as porters or labourers.”

Roi added, “Recently there has been news spreading that fighting will start up again soon and we are scared to be left alone in the village, so we decided to leave.”

Roi and her family are taking shelter in the Catholic compound in Wai Maw, around seven kilometres outside Myitkyina. The parish priest said, “Up to August 10, we had 560 refugees registered in the camp and more are still coming in.”

He added that the Kachin state government has opened a small clinic in the church grounds and detailed three nurses to staff it. In addition, the state has provided some educational facilities for the many children in the camp, something he said is absolutely necessary, as it is the children who suffer the most disorientation from the dislocation.

“We are receiving support from the government,” the priest went on, “and we are working together to help the refugees.” He explained that while most of the financial assistance is coming from Caritas Myitkyina, many local people have also donated money or goods, especially rice, clothes and other basic necessities.

However, with the inadequate sanitary conditions, a member of the Wai Maw emergency relief team, Sara Seng, said, “Its really over crowded in the camp, because there are almost 45 people sleeping in each temporary shelter.”

Gam said that all up, there are 11 shelters on the property made by stretching blue, waterproof plastic sheets across a frame. “They are eight metres long and six metres wide,” he explained. “Because of overcrowding in the camp, between the people and the monsoon rains, the insides of the shelters are quite muddy and riddled with mosquitoes, so an outbreak of cholera or malaria was inevitable.”

Thirty-five-year-old Lahpai La, from Dabak village near the Yunnan border, said, “It is already a problem. Many people are sick with malaria and cholera, because there are too many people living at close quarters in one camp.”

However, the priest said, “We will build more shelters to lessen the crush.”

Gam notes that the instability of the situation in the whole area means that people are continually on the move away from their homes and the future of all the refugees is in limbo. He added that their big worry is that they do not know what is happening to their properties and small farms.

Officials at Caritas in Myitkyina estimate that there are over 10,000 refugees being housed between the Catholic, Anglican and Baptist Churches. Gam said that the Catholic Church is also providing a door-to-door food distribution service in the capital for those who have come into the city from the rural areas to seek shelter with relatives.

Once again the belligerent attitude of Naypyidaw towards international relief agencies is making life more difficult than it need be for the local government, Churches and people to keep up the necessary supply of food, medicine and other necessities to those in need.

“Many people are quite frustrated and upset about the government not allowing non-government organisations to help the people who are in great need,” Gam explained. “And the big problem of resettlement is still to come.”

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