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Military blocks much needed relief aid in Myanmar's north

Food deliveries can't reach 42,000 vulnerable civilians in Kachin and Shan states

Military blocks much needed relief aid in Myanmar's north

Refugees in front of their temporary shelter near Lung Byeng village, Waimaw township in Kachin State. Clashes between the army and ethnic minority militias in Myanmar's borderlands have intensified in recent months, undercutting Aung San Suu Kyi's vow to bring peace to the country since her party took power in March 2016. (Photo by Hkun Lat/AFP)

Published: March 22, 2017 04:29 AM GMT

Updated: March 22, 2017 07:03 AM GMT

After a green light from local authorities, a U.N. team left the southern Kachin state town of Banmaw recently to provide clothes to internally displaced people living in makeshift camps near the Myanmar-China border.

But their route was later blocked by the military who demanded to see permission from the state. The nod from the township was not enough. They needed higher-level authority. The internal refugees did not get their clothes that day.

Commenting on the incident, Bishop Raymond Sumlut Gam of Banmaw said: "You can imagine the struggle to provide a humanitarian response to the people in the camps when even the U.N. is denied access."

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Even though Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government took office in 2016, the fighting in the country's north has worsened.

"Under the new government there has been more conflict with heavy artillery and helicopters that has led to newly displaced people in ethnic areas and we are facing more restrictions on humanitarian aid," Bishop Gam, chairman of Caritas Myanmar, told ucanews.com.

The Kachin bishop said that some areas have been off limits to aid agencies since August 2016. "We are trying our best to provide humanitarian aid to internally displaced people (IDP) living in camps amid systematic blockages and international funding shortfalls," said Bishop Gam.

Gum Sha Aung, a spokesman of the Joint Strategy Team, an alliance of nine humanitarian organizations, said the U.N. aid convoy hasn't been allowed to access non-governmental controlled areas in Kachin State since Suu Kyi's government took office in April 2016.

He added that the humanitarian response has deteriorated and conflict continues to erupt in ethnic areas where local armed groups have been fighting the Myanmar military on-and-off for 70 years. While the reasons for the conflict are manifold, most ethnic armed groups want a federalized state and devolved power: an anathema to the Myanmar military.

"The continued blockage and restrictions on aid is in violation of humanitarian law and the rights of people who are displaced due to conflict," Gum Sha Aung told ucanews.com.



A mother feeds her baby at a refugee camp near Lung Byeng village, Waimaw township in Kachin State on Jan.17. (Photo by Hkun Lat/AFP)


New displacement

Sporadic fighting has continued in ethnic areas even after Suu Kyi initiated the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in August 2016. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner's hands have been tied by the military as a precondition of allowing her democratic reforms.

The military still controls three key ministries: border, home and defense. A quarter of parliamentary seats are reserved for them and the idea of civilian oversight remains laughable.

A recent United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) report said that Myanmar has experienced a surge in new IDPs in four states while humanitarian organizations have faced severe constraints.

International food deliveries to around 42,000 IDPs have been blocked for months in Kachin and Shan states.

Mark Cutts, head of UNOCHA in Myanmar, said their "access is systematically blocked" to areas beyond government control.

"We are talking about vulnerable civilians directly affected by conflict, including elderly people, pregnant women, small children, the sick and the disabled. Where is the humanity?" said Cutts.

More than 140,000 civilians have fled their homes in Kachin, Shan, Kayin and Rakhine states since September 2016. Some 97,000 are Rohingya who fled a military persecution that began in October, 2016.

These new IDPs find themselves among an estimated 220,000 long-term IDPs and 100,000 Karen refugees who have lived in camps in Thailand since 1990s.

Former U.N. head Kofi Annan is heading the Rakhine Advisory Commission and they released an interim report on March 16 that called for "unimpeded access for humanitarian actors" and journalists to the affected areas in northern Rakhine.

In a further wave of displacement more than 20,000 Kokang civilians crossed into China after Kokang rebels launched surprise attacks in Laukkai town, near the border, on March 6.

The second part of the delayed 21st Century Panglong will take place in May and Suu Kyi's attempt to stop the fighting continues but with the military's carte blanche to face down frustrated minority armies with indiscriminate violence, progress will be difficult.


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