06/09/2015, 00.00
MYANMAR
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For Catholic activist, the plight of Kachin displaced by the military’s violence is getting worse

by Francis Khoo Thwe
Khon Ja Labang spoke to AsiaNews about the situation four years after fighting broke out again in Kachin State. The military is looking constantly for pretexts to attack. Refugees have to survive on less than 40 cents a day. Only 16 per cent of their humanitarian needs are met. Meanwhile, she is raising funds in Yangon for displaced people.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – The situation in Kachin and Shan, states located on Myanmar’s northern border with China, is "getting worse" because of constant attacks by the Myanmar Armed Forces (MAF).

Known as Tatmadaw in Burmese, Myanmar’s military is using pretexts to carry out military operations in order to continue illegal logging in protected areas.

Civilians are the ones paying the price for such behaviour, especially about 120,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), forced to survive on “20 cents a day”, said Khon Ja Labang, a Catholic activist who is a member of the Kachin Peace Network involved in peace building efforts in areas of ethnic conflict.

On the fourth anniversary of the resumption of hostilities between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a rebel force active in Kachin State, the situation is near collapse, Khon Ja told AsiaNews.

For the Catholic activist, the security and health of people displaced in the region are the greatest challenges because soldiers are constantly moving and occupying homes and villages. In some places, they outnumber villagers.

Rapes, robberies, murders and arbitrary arrests of defenceless civilians by soldiers have become commonplace. Locals are already going hungry because they lack the means to earn a living and survive.

Under the circumstances, many take great risks by going into “mine fields or forests to collect plants and mushrooms." However, there are even greater dangers, Khon Ja explained, “when they try to go back to their villages, which are still under government control.”

In view of the situation, Khon Ja has been trying to raise funds in Yangon to benefit Kachin IDPs. However, “At present, about 120,000 people are surviving on 12,500 kyats a month. That is about 40 cents US a day”. And this month, funds have been cut further, so that they will only get 20 cents a day. Meanwhile, an additional 20,000 IDPs have arrived in recent weeks.

According to sources with the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), only 16 per cent of IDPs’ humanitarian needs are being met, only 17 per cent in the case of food.

“Almost all the tents have to be replaced,” the Catholic activist noted. “After four years, some have been ripped by heavy downpours.” The need for food, medical drugs and better sanitation remains dire in the face of mounting health problems.

In the meantime, as local tensions continue to run high, the government’s peace plan has reached a “critical stage,” the member of the Kachin Peace Network noted. Yet, the military’s actions remain a major obstacle to a cease-fire. “The Armed Forces are pursuing offensives not only in Kachin State but also in other parts of the country and seem disconnected from the peace process.”

Against this backdrop and the fourth anniversary of the resumption of hostilities, various human rights organisations and activists have released a joint statement.

Speaking on behalf of the “thousands of voiceless Kachin people who are suffering in this situation,” they stressed the fate of “desperate mothers crying for help for their chronically malnourished children; the thousands of young children who have been left without education; the small children who are now entering their teenage years as residents of IDP camps; the old men who feel they have lost their dignity to live.”

In a country of about 135 ethnic groups, peaceful coexistence has always been a struggle, especially with the central government, which is dominated by ethnic Burmese.

In the past, when the Armed Forces ran the country, the military junta used an iron fist against the groups least amenable to central control, like ethnic Kachin, who live along the border with China in the north, and more recently, ethnic Kokang in Shan state, where the president imposed a state of emergency a few months ago.

In Kachin State, fighting between the Myanmar military and Kachin forces resumed in June 2011 after 17 years of relative calm.

Since then, scores of civilians have died and at least 200,000 have been forced to flee their homes.

Last August, local Catholic bishops issued a plea for a lasting solution to the conflict.

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