The unsung heroes of Kachin’s civil war

Since the Myanmar government blocked humanitarian aid – much needed food and medical supplies from entering parts of the northern state of Kachin last year – the situation has grown desperate.

Senin, 27 Mar 2017 11:43 WIB

Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew

Photo: Kannikar Petchkaew

Since the Myanmar government blocked humanitarian aid – much needed food and medical supplies from entering parts of the northern state of Kachin last year – the situation has grown desperate.

There are more than a hundred thousand people living in refugee camps, and food rations have now been halved. 

Asia Calling correspondent Kannikar Petchkaew recently traveled in secret to the area controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, or the KIA, to find out how humanitarian workers are responding to the situation, and in some cases, maneuvering around the blockade.

Htoi Laris in his mid twenties, he’s friendly, cheerful, and hardly ever without his broad smile.

He works with traumatized youth in refugee camps here, engaging them through art, music and drama.

But when he has time, he likes to ride his motorbike around Kachin. Riding, he says, has long been a part of his life.

In Kachin, the civil war has been running, on and off, since the early 1960s.

A ceasefire agreement between the government and the KIA, which has longed pushed for independence, fell apart in 2011. Htoi Lar had just finished high school at the time.

When the conflict started, Htoi Lar jumped on his motorbike and rode for days on end.

Hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing. But the KIA-controlled area was blocked, on one side by the army, on the other, the Chinese border. 

Thousands in Kachin were trapped.

As Htoi Lar watched the situation unfold, he made his way to the jungle and helped the only way he knew how – picking up people on the back of his bike and taking them one by one to safer ground.

Like Htoi Lar on his motorbike, Bawk Hkun has just driven his 4-wheel-drive car down from the mountain. 

He’s helping to move internally displaced people,or IDP’s, away from the fighting, taking them out of harm’s way.

Six years after the fighting broke out, more than 120,000 people in Kachin have been displaced. 

“These IDPs, they feel like strays, and they feel so tired after 5-6 years, they have [had] to flee many times, again and again,” said Bawk Hkun. 

He’s from an NGO called the Kachin Development Group, one of only nine groups allowed to work in the KIA-controlled area.

Since early last year, the government asked international agencies not to deliver humanitarian assistance, food and medical supplies into the area, citing safety and security concerns.

When the World Food Program sent trucks into the area on September 9 last year, they were turned back.

“[A] UN agency cannot come directly, or routinely, let say. But in the government controlled area they can access whenever they want because they have the MOU with government, and [the] government don't allow them to come to this KIA-controlled area,” explained Bawk Hkun.


Moving IDPs out of the intensive fighting area means Bawk Hkun has to risk his own life.

But there’s little choice. The situation has deteriorated so much after the government blockade, he says, there are few people around to do the job.

For Bawk Hkun, it feels like an uphill battle.

“Sometimes I feel like the big organizations and INGOs or UN agency, they don't care what normal people have to face because they have good relation with the government so they can work and stay peacefully and what they want to do they can do,” he revealed.

There are thousands of displaced people to care for, and dwindling resources. IDPs in Kachin now live on less than 20 cents a day, while rations of rice and milk have been halved.

Bawk Hkun and other local NGOs are also under heavy scrutiny from the army, which is working to ensure supply lines stay blocked.

In recent months the Myanmar Army has intensified their offensive, with heavy shelling and air strikes. Some also wonder if the blockades of supplies are being used as a weapon of war too. 

Doug Gibbons works for an international NGO called Partners. 

Even after years of working in the area, his agency is one of those impacted by the blockade.

“It's very difficult to get in there, and then it's very difficult to come out,” Gibbons said. 

“So yes, that's ongoing for us. We’d love to do more development work there ‘cause we have been working for a little while, but haven't really been able to,” he stated.

While big humanitarian agencies have abided by the government’s order, other international agencies have found a way to continue to help.

During my trip I heard stories of how some are sneaking assistance into the KIA areas, such as delivering food and medical supplies in secret, even though it comes with great risk.

 

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