A Kachin woman and her child inside the IDP camp in Myitkyina, Kachin state's capital on December 5 (Photo by John Zaw )
Myanmar's government is restricting humanitarian access to thousands of people living in camps on the Chinese border amid heightened tensions between government forces and ethnic rebels, a local Catholic aid group says.
The Myanmar army shelled the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) headquarters at Laiza on November 19, killing 23 trainees from a variety of ethnic armed groups active in Myanmar's border regions.
The attack has put in doubt already stalled negotiations toward a nationwide ceasefire agreement and has been widely denounced, despite the military's claims the mortar strike was "unintentional".
Skirmishes have flared up in Kachin state and northern Shan state since the attack, but large-scale fighting has not taken place.
Aid workers say the government is now blocking United Nations convoys that have since June 2013 delivered supplies to internally displaced people living in rebel-administered camps on the mountainous Myanmar-China border. These camps house about half of the 99,000 people who have fled their homes during the conflict since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in 2011.
Father Noel Naw Lat, director of Catholic Church-backed Karuna Myanmar Social Services' Myitkyina branch, says that the government has claimed travel authorization for international aid convoys could not be granted for "security reasons".
Karuna Myanmar and the Kachin Baptist Convention, which have been providing aid to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Myanmar since 2011, are still able to reach the camps. But Fr Noel Naw Lat said that camps close to Laiza that are not directly administered by either of the local Church organizations would soon be low on supplies without further UN assistance.
"From next month, we don't know what we will do," he said, adding that about 20,000 people were residing in such "no man's camps" around Laiza.
In an emailed response to ucanews.com, Pierre Peron, spokesman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yangon, declined to say whether the UN was being prevented from delivering aid to the camps, but did confirm that the last international convoy traveled in September.
"International organizations support and supplement the activities of local NGOs by providing assistance and technical support through cross-line convoys. These cross-line convoys are cleared through administrative procedures involving both the Myanmar authorities and the KIO, and we are currently waiting for the finalization of this process," Peron said.
He said the UN was "working closely with the authorities and local NGOs to find solutions to ensure that aid reaches all people in need, whether in camps or in host communities".
The recent uptick in incidents in northern Myanmar comes at the end of the least violent year in the current conflict. The government and the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA's political wing, had earlier in the year agreed to form a joint peace-monitoring group and begin a pilot project to resettle the displaced.
Nshang San Awng, a member of the Peace-talk Creation Group, an organization based in the state capital Myitkyina that mediates between the Kachin rebels and the government, said that trust had been deeply damaged by the recent attack on Laiza.
"Almost all the Kachin people believe following this attack that the military has no commitment to getting peace," he said. "They are saying the words, but the actions don't follow."
Locals were worried by increasing numbers of government soldiers in the state since the attack, he added.
Ja Tawng, 43, a mother of seven who has lived at the St Paul Ja Mai Kaung camp in Myitkyina since fleeing her village in Wai Maw township in 2011, said the Laiza attack was a blow to displaced people hoping to resume their normal lives after some two-and-a-half years in temporary shelters.
"There were signs we could go back to our land soon, but now we doubt it," she told ucanews.com.
"More fighting is happening, and we see that the situation is worsening again."