Wed 7 Dec 2011
Filed under: On The Border,Refugees
Yangon, Myanmar — Intensifying clashes between ethnic rebels and Myanmar’s army have forced tens of thousands of villagers into refugee camps near the Chinese border, according to aid workers and members of the clergy.Efforts by the Myanmar government to restart talks with leaders of the Kachin ethnic group appear to have failed, leading to a crisis that is developing just as the government is trying to introduce economic and political reforms.
“Now the fighting is everywhere,” Naw Din, a coordinator for a Catholic-run refugee camp in the northern town of Bhamo, said by telephone on Tuesday. “We are hearing bombing, night or day.”
A government representative met with leaders of the Kachin Independence Organization shortly before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Myanmar last week, but the talks were inconclusive. Fighting was reported on Tuesday near the headquarters of the Kachin group, which has an army of several thousand fighters.
More than 26,000 people have now been displaced by the conflict, according to a detailed tally by a Kachin aid worker who asked not to be identified in order to preserve her access to the troubled and remote region. A Roman Catholic priest returning from the affected area on Tuesday said that some priests and nuns and clergymen were trapped by the clashes, which he said involved heavy weapons.
“The fighting is intensifying now,” the priest said by telephone from northern Myanmar. He said Kachin fighters had abandoned many of their bases and were now engaged in guerrilla attacks against the military.
The mountainous northern reaches of Myanmar, rich in jade and timber and crisscrossed by traffickers dealing in heroin and methamphetamines, are among the most unstable areas in Southeast Asia.
The new government of President Thein Sein has reached out to the country’s minority ethnic groups, which have a long history of conflict with the central government and make up about one-third of Myanmar’s population of 55 million. Last week there were reports of a cease-fire deal with another rebel group, a faction of the Shan State Army.
Myanmar’s majority ethnic group, the Burman, have dominated the army and held the highest posts in government since the country, formerly known as Burma, won independence from Britain in 1948, while the non-Burman minorities have sought autonomy.
“The ethnic people of this country have different backgrounds, different histories, different cultures — even different ways of naming their children,” Yogawng Hawng Hkawng, 88, a Kachin Baptist minister, said in an interview this year at his home in northern Myanmar.
The minister’s life has been one of tumult and war interrupted by periods of peace. He fought on the side of the Allies in World War II when Burma was occupied by Japan and the Kachin hills were a major battleground. The cold war brought decades of fighting between Chinese-backed Communist rebels and the central government. The current round of fighting between Kachin rebels and the Myanmar authorities began in June.
International aid organizations have been allowed to deliver food to refugee camps near major towns. Carlos Veloso of the United Nations World Food Program says his group has delivered about 220 tons of food in the Kachin areas, but it has only enough money to last through February.