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Conflict-hit Myanmar refugees yearn for peace

19 march 2012, 18:44
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An ethnic Kachin child peering out of his shack at a refugee camp. ©AFP
An ethnic Kachin child peering out of his shack at a refugee camp. ©AFP
Fears are growing for the future of tens of thousands of refugees uprooted by ethnic conflict in northern Myanmar, despite the reformist government's talk of peace with the rebels, AFP reports.

Civilians in camps in northernmost Kachin state lack adequate shelter, sanitation as well as food and water supplies, and with the monsoon looming the risk of malaria and other diseases is increasing, relief workers say.

UN agencies are struggling to deliver aid to those most in need, particularly in rebel-held areas in the mountainous state bordering China, and access will become even harder when the rainy season starts in around May.

"The weather would have a huge impact on anybody that is displaced," said Aye Win, a spokesman for the United Nations in Yangon, urging "a solution so that aid can be delivered as soon as possible".

The campaign group Refugees International has warned of the risk of a "serious humanitarian crisis" in the region.

Many of the refugees are traumatised after fleeing clashes between government troops and guerrillas with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which controls swathes of the state.

The predominantly Baptist and Catholic Kachin account for about seven percent of Myanmar's population and live in the remote far north near China.

The KIA used to be one of the most powerful armed rebel groups, but signed a ceasefire with the junta in 1994. Today their guerrilla army is thought to be at least several thousand strong.

The conflict re-erupted in June last year as anger grew over a clutch of Chinese-backed hydropower projects in the region.

Fighting has raged since then despite the new quasi-civilian government's insistence that it wants to reach peace deals with the country's various armed rebel groups.

"When the mines exploded near our home, it was like an earthquake. Our houses were shaken. We were really frightened," Khun Mai, a 37-year-old ethnic Kachin woman, said while cradling her three-month-old baby at a camp housing hundreds of refugees in a church compound.

Having reached the state capital Myitkyina, which is relatively easy for relief workers to access, her family has a temporary bamboo hut to sleep in and food donations from local aid groups and the UN World Food Programme.

She and her family fled their home near the town of Laiza, which is under the control of the KIA, in June last year and crossed into government-held territory.

Some of her relatives and friends, including children from her village, were killed by landmines or illness while escaping.

"My children think they have to run away forever," Khun Mai said.

A new report by Human Rights Watch, due out on Tuesday, estimates that about 75,000 ethnic Kachin people have been displaced by the conflict.

It accuses the Myanmar army of abuses such as the torture and rape of civilians, conscripted forced labor on the frontlines -- including children as young as 14 -- and blocking international relief efforts.

The report also accuses the Kachin rebels of using child soldiers and anti-personnel landmines, and the refugees fear that even a peace pact would not end the violence.

"I worry the situation could be worse if there is a ceasefire. The (government) soldiers do what they want in our region," said Aung Mai, a 39-year-old bishop staying at a camp in the government-held town of Bahmo.

Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence in 1948. An end to the conflicts and alleged rights abuses involving government troops is a key demand of Western nations which have imposed sanctions on the regime.

While the government has signed peace deals with other insurgent groups, several rounds of talks with the political wing of the Kachin rebels have failed to bear fruit.

During a visit to Myanmar last week, US special envoy Derek Mitchell said the violence in Kachin was inconsistent with the government's reformist bent.

"The immediate concern that we have is on the issue of internally displaced persons, who by any defiMnition are innocents caught in the crossfire of conflict," he said, urging the government to enable aid to reach the victims.

A group of prominent Kachin businessmen have volunteered to be negotiators between the KIA's political wing and the government.

"The people are really in trouble," one of the mediators, Yup Zaw Hkaung, told AFP.

He said about 20,000 refugees have fled their homes in government-controlled areas while roughly 50,000 have been uprooted in rebel-held territory.

"The fighting must stop if we are to save the traumatised people."

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