Villagers from Sang Gang, in Kachin State site of recent fighting, at a newly established internally displaced persons camp.

© 2011 Human Rights Watch

(New York) – The Burmese government should make a long-term commitment with humanitarian agencies to provide relief to Burma’s war-torn Kachin state, Human Rights Watch said today. Since June 2011, an estimated 50,000 ethnic Kachin have been displaced due to fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and many are in great need of humanitarian assistance.

In early December, after months of negotiations, the Burmese government granted United Nations agencies humanitarian access to Kachin state, including areas controlled by KIA forces. Nonetheless, assistance remains limited and foreign donors should seek to expand support to international and local groups delivering aid on the ground, Human Rights Watch said.

“That Burmese authorities granted UN aid agencies access to displaced people in Kachin state is an important step, but it demands a long-term commitment from the government and foreign donors alike,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government and Kachin forces should ensure that the tens of thousands of displaced people in remote camps get the food and shelter they need.”

The Burmese government granted humanitarian access in early December to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which sought to coordinate a relief effort in KIA-controlled territory along the Burma-China border. On December 12, a convoy of six UN trucks carrying basic household and shelter items reached camps for internally displaced persons near Laiza.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, and local civil society organizations, such as Wunpawng Ninghtoi  (“Light of Kachin”), have supported displaced communities in KIA-controlled areas since June, with limited resources. In recent weeks, local relief efforts reported dwindling supplies and limited capacity, compounded by an absence of direct international aid and support.

According to various Kachin sources, displaced Kachin need food and non-food items, such as medicine, blankets, warm clothing, firewood and fuel, and adequate shelter.  On-site healthcare in camps is insufficient, nutrition needs of children and pregnant women are not being met, and there is a need for support to collect data about humanitarian conditions and needs. The sources also expressed concerns about the physical security of the camps and the camp communities, particularly those located nearer conflict areas.

On December 10, Burmese President Thein Sein issued a request for the army to cease attacks against the KIA, specifying that troops should only fire in self defense. It is unclear whether Burmese army units in Kachin State have heeded the message, since local sources said fighting continued as recently as December 20. Thein Sein is not the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and in order to formalize a unilateral ceasefire there would need to be a meeting of Burma’s National Defense and Security Council, of which Thein Sein is the chairman.

Many Kachin civilians who have fled the fighting say they also particularly fear human rights violations by the Burmese army. Since June, the Burmese army in Kachin state has committed extrajudicial killings, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, rape, forced labor, and the pillaging of villages. The Burmese army razed several villages, at least two of which were burned to the ground on December 16, after Thein Sein requested a unilateral ceasefire.

The estimated 50,000 displaced people in Kachin state include approximately 10,000 Kachin in Burmese government-controlled areas in towns such as Myitkyina, the state capital, and Bhamo. These people have received aid from UN agencies and local and international organizations since late September.

For those in internally displaced camps in the towns and near the China border, long-term food security is a concern due to the timing of the initial fighting between the Burmese Army and KIA in early June. Tens of thousands of people were forced to flee their homes and farms during the planting season and were unable to plant their crops, which will have a serious impact on food security for large swathes of the population.

“We couldn’t plant anything because the war started,” said a 70-year-old displaced woman from Bum Seng village interviewed by Human Rights Watch in early August.  She said that only 3 of 38 families in her village were able to plant their rice before the fighting started. “This means we’ll have a serious problem.... We don’t know what to do. If we cannot go back, we will try our best to survive. Either way we won’t have rice.”

The conflict has created pressure on families to return to insecure villages to tend to their fields, risking encounters with hostile Burmese army forces. Others able to plant rice had to flee before they could harvest it. In November, a woman from Loi Kang, Shan state, told Human Rights Watch, “I couldn’t harvest my paddy field before I fled, I just had to go. This is the same for the whole village. What will we do?”

A local humanitarian worker told Human Rights Watch in November, “The immediate needs and long-term needs are food and food security.… Shelter is another big problem now, and medication. In [the largest camp outside Laiza] there’s a huge camp but no hospital. We are trying to build a 15-bed hospital. It’s a small clinic. Doctors are not there. Only small-qualified nurses trained here. They can only provide basic medications. Also it is winter. It is very cold.”

Under international humanitarian law, the government is responsible for meeting the humanitarian needs of the war-affected population. Parties to an internal armed conflict – here the Burmese government and the KIA – must allow humanitarian relief to reach civilian populations that need food, medicine, and other items essential to their survival. If the government is unable to meet this obligation fully, it must allow impartial humanitarian agencies to do so on its behalf. Parties to a conflict must ensure the freedom of movement of humanitarian relief personnel, and only in cases of military necessity may their activities or movements be temporarily restricted.

The UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement provide authoritative standards for the obligations of governments to internally displaced persons. Under the principles, the authorities are to provide displaced people “at a minimum” with safe access to essential food and potable water, basic shelter and housing, appropriate clothing, and essential medical services and sanitation. Many of these needs persist in Kachin state.

“Kachin’s highly vulnerable population remains in need of a sustained and coordinated relief operation,” Pearson said. “Many Kachin civilians in remote areas are still desperately in need of food, warm clothing, improved shelter, and access to medical care.”

In addition to the Burmese military’s attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch has documented the use of child soldiers and anti-personnel landmines by both the Burmese army and the KIA, which are serious violations of international law. Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese military and the KIA to respect international humanitarian law, end abuses against the civilian population, and ensure safe and unimpeded humanitarian access across Kachin state.

“The Burmese army is responsible for a litany of human rights abuses against Kachin civilians since June,” Pearson said. “Both sides need to stop using child soldiers and landmines, practices that have a devastating effect on the civilian population.”