(Commentary) – More than 15,000 internally displaced people made homeless by fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Organization are currently trapped in a remote area of northern Burma along the border with China, and the United Nations appears unwilling to help.
Unable to cross into China, these displaced people are said to be in dire need of humanitarian aid, but so far the UN and its related agencies have failed to reach them. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, revealed in a 19 October report that the Burmese government had declined a UN offer to provide aid to these people, who he described as being in a “perilous” situation.
According to Quintana, “The United Nations approached the government [of Burma], offering assistance to all those in need. According to reliable sources, the government’s position is that assistance is currently provided at the local level, and when needed they will seek further assistance from relevant partners.”
Following the release of Quintana’s report, Mizzima has repeatedly asked UN representatives both in New York and in Rangoon to elaborate on the Burmese regime’s refusal to allow aid to reach internally displaced people behind KIO lines. However, UN and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) staff have so far neglected to provide adequate information.
Instead, UN spokespersons have focused their statements on the minority of displaced people who fled to territory controlled by the Burmese government and to which the UN maintains access. At a press conference in New York last Thursday, Martin Nesirky, chief spokesperson for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, replied to a question about the UN’s response in Kachin state with the following: “We have asked our colleagues on the ground in Myanmar [Burma], who tell us that assistance is being delivered in reachable areas. Meanwhile, discussions continue to ensure that assistance reaches all those in need.”
Yet, when a correspondent from Inner City Press pressed the spokesperson to elaborate on the term “reachable areas,” Nesirky elaborated, “It says that assistance is being delivered in reachable areas, and meanwhile discussions continue to ensure that assistance reaches all those in need. I don’t have anything beyond what I have just read out to you; otherwise, I would have read out a little bit more.”
OCHA responded to Mizzima’s questions with only a few additional details. Spokesperson Amanda Pitt said in an e-mail, “My understanding is that UN agencies and NGO partners offered assistance and have been working with the local authorities in Kachin State over the last few weeks.
“Apparently local NGOs were starting to run out of supplies, and the agencies have carried out assessments of some of the internally displaced people in five of the seven townships there.
“They estimate that there are about 6,000 displaced people who need help, with food, shelter, water and sanitation, and items like bed mats and kitchen sets. The World Food Programme has started providing some food assistance in those areas as well.”
Yet, critically, Pitt declined to answer whether OCHA was attempting to reach the 15,000 people Quintana estimated trapped on the Chinese border.
However, the Kachin Rapid Assessment report, released in the last week of September and to which OCHA Burma-based staff contributed, appears to at least partially answer the question.
In the report it is stated that despite knowledge that certain townships in Kachin state are hosting internally displaced people, areas in the these townships that were surveyed did not include any areas behind the KIO front line, where it is believed a majority of refugees are stranded. Moreover, the report’s “recommendations” do not call for the UN to attempt to gain access to this population.
Moon Nay Li, coordinator of the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand, an organization that is in regular communication with those who have fled fighting in Kachin State, told Mizzima in a phone interview that if the UN really wanted to access the border areas, they could. According to Moon Nay Li, “There are ways to get access to these people. If the UN really wanted to do a proper assessment, they could reach them.”
She added that it is important the UN follow-up and access refugees in the border area because “this is a conflict in which the Burmese army is attacking villages and civilians, therefore most of the refugees fled towards the border to get away from the Burmese army.” Moon Nay Li further said her group estimates that the number of civilians trapped in the border area to have now doubled from Quintana’s original estimate.
Reached for comment, NLD co-founder U Win Tin said he wasn’t surprised by the UN’s reluctance to push harder for access to the displaced Kachin population. The veteran opposition activist lamented, “The UN agencies are always rather timid and they are very afraid.”
Recently disclosed Wikileak cables of US diplomatic correspondence appear to support U Win Tin’s assertion.
A cable dated June 2008 quotes a representative of OCHA in Burma as telling US diplomats that although UN and OCHA staff had been gathering evidence about Burmese authorities forcibly relocating victims of Cyclone Nargis, the UN was reluctant to bring this up with the Burmese government.
The cable said the OCHA representative “explained that the UN was concerned that ‘coming out strong’ on forced relocation at this time could jeopardize the access to the Delta the regime had recently granted UN international staff.”
Though urging the UN take more interest in the plight of Burma’s ethnic minorities, U Win Tin bemoaned that this was unlikely to happen given the reluctance of Ban Ki-moon to take a stronger stance with the Burmese regime.
Asked to comment on his party’s take on the situation in northern Kachin state, the former political prisoner declared, “We are with the Kachin people and we think the Kachin people’s struggle is right and their cause is right.”