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Concern grows for displaced Kachins trapped in jungle

Myanmar military refuses plea for rescue as religious and community leaders worry for people's safety and survival

Concern grows for displaced Kachins trapped in jungle

Displaced Kachin people are seen in a jungle area near Tanai town where they have been trapped since April 11. (Photo by Hkun Awng Nlam)

More than 2,000 Kachins including the elderly, pregnant women and the sick remain trapped in a jungle area near Tanai, the gold and amber region of Myanmar's conflict-stricken Kachin State.

Heavy fighting between Myanmar's military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has led to thousands of people from Awng Lawt and nearby villages fleeing their homes since April 11.

Christian and community leaders met government officials and a military commander in an effort to rescue the trapped civilians and provide humanitarian assistance. But the military blocked any rescue mission.

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Rev. Je Di, pastor of Kachin Baptist Church in Tanai, said trapped villagers need urgent humanitarian assistance such as food.

"Religious leaders and community leaders are not allowed to rescue the people, so we worry for their safety and daily survival," he told ucanews.com.

On April 18 evening, Myanmar's military announced with loudspeakers in Tanai town that villagers from Awng Lawt could return home after military clearance operations.

The KIA's Brigade 2 headquarters are situated about 1.5 kilometers from Awng Lawt.

The military announcement added it would provide security and assistance to enable villagers to return.

On April 18, Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina had a meeting with Khet Aung, chief minister of Kachin State, in St. Columban's Cathedral to discuss how the government could help trapped civilians.

Bishop Francis could not be reached for comment.

Awng Ja, a member of Kachin State Women's Network, said she is very concerned about villagers' security.

They have been in the jungle for more than a week and are in dire need of food and medical assistance as there are six pregnant women, elderly and the sick, she said.

Naw Bu, head of the information department of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, said Myanmar's military has taken a position in Awng Lawt village.

He said Awng Lawt village is not safe as fighting between the military and KIA could erupt again.

"It is not safe for people to go back in the unstable conditions and I don't think people dare to return when military troops are positioned in the village," Naw Bu told ucanews.com.

At least two civilians were killed and four injured in the latest fighting in Kachin, according to aid groups.

The United Nations is deeply concerned about reports of an escalation in armed conflict in several areas in Kachin since April 7. It said people are "in a dire situation" and in "urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection."

"I appeal to all parties to the conflict to allow displaced people and other civilians who may remain in the areas of conflict to be permitted to move to a more secure location of their choice and to allow for humanitarian assistance to reach these populations as a matter of urgency," the U.N. resident and humanitarian coordinator for Myanmar said in a statement on April 20.

Hundreds of villagers and thousands of mine workers left Tanai in mid-2017 after the military warned of clearance operations against the KIA.

More than 1,000 internally displaced persons have taken refuge at Catholic and Baptist churches in Tanai since June 2017.

The region's gold and amber mines, where an estimated 100,000 people work, are concentrated near Tanai. Most workers are Buddhists from central Myanmar.

The government has pledged to bring an end to the decades-long conflict in the country but renewed clashes have undermined peace initiatives. The fighting has also raised questions about how much influence State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has over the military.

Maran Ja Seng Hkawng, a regional MP from Kachin State Democracy Party, said renewed fighting has undermined the government's peace process and led to mistrust between the military and ethnic armed groups.

"Fighting must be halted when all stakeholders are trying to end decades-old civil wars. The government should announce a unilateral ceasefire with all armed ethnic groups," Seng Hkawng, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com

Kachin State is 90 percent Christian and has been beset by sporadic fighting for several decades. More than 100,000 people remain displaced in Kachin and Shan states since fighting resumed on June 9, 2011.

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