Tue 22 Jan 2013
Filed under: International,News
The president of the International Committee for the Red Cross said that Myanmar’s government has agreed that Red Cross aid workers should be allowed to operate freely in conflict zones, but it remains unclear when any will actually be able to travel to Kachin State, where fighting continues between rebels and the country’s military.
Peter Maurer, who said he wasn’t able to meet military leaders during a visit to the Southeast Asian country last week, said it was difficult to gauge precisely how much control the generals retain in the quasi-civilian government that has come to power in a transition that began in 2010.
But Mr. Maurer said the military’s control appeared to be much greater in conflict zones like Kachin State, and he called for meetings with its commanders to facilitate aid work in conflict areas.
“We are pushing for direct contact with the army leadership,” said Mr. Maurer said Monday from Geneva. “This is the daily bread and butter in all our operations.”
Government leaders indicated that such access to the uniformed military wouldn’t be forthcoming, however. Ye Htut, spokesman for President Thein Sein, said that only the defense ministry meets with foreign guests as the representative for the military. “It is our protocol that military commanders only receive their counterparts from other militaries,” Mr. Ye Htut said.
The visit was the first by an ICRC president to the long-isolated nation. Mr. Maurer met Mr. Thein Sein and the defense and home affairs ministers and traveled to Rakhine State, which had previously been off-limits to the ICRC. The state has seen bloody clashes between majority Rakhine Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims, which have displaced tens of thousands of people. Mr. Maurer called the visit to the western state “highly emotional.”
Mr. Maurer didn’t visit Kachin State in the far north; no trip there had been planned. However, he said the government had agreed to allow ICRC workers to both Rakhine and Kachin states, and was especially interested in the offer of medical assistance. Details of any forthcoming access still need to be worked out, he said.
“There is a strong agreement with the government that the ICRC should operate in areas like Rakhine and Kachin state,” Mr. Maurer said, “but access to conflict areas still remains cautious.” He said he was hopeful about the willingness of Mr. Thein Sein’s government to calm tensions in Kachin State and other areas but that “more discussions may be needed to find consensus between parliamentarians and generals.”
Last Friday, the government announced a unilateral cease-fire around its bases in Kachin State. But fighting between the rebels, who have long pursued autonomy for the remote region, and the military has continued, independent observers reported, and the rebels haven’t yet agreed to peace talks and demanded that the military widen its cease-fire to include all disputed areas.
The proposed cease-fire came after weeks of airstrikes and artillery pounded ethnic areas, inviting harsh criticism from neighboring China after stray bombs fell into Chinese territory. A spokesperson for the Chinese government, Hong Lei, said at a daily news briefing that the situation at border areas between China and Myanmar is currently “stable,” according to the Associated Press. Human rights groups say many residents of the rebel base of Laiza have cross the border into China in recent weeks.
Despite lingering violence, Mr. Maurer contrasted the process that Myanmar has made in granting access to troubled areas compared to the international criticism over the military government’s handling of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when foreign aid workers and military units were essentially banned.
The ICRC this week will visit prisons in Myanmar to assess conditions, once all-but impossible. “These developments were unimaginable just a couple of months ago,” Mr. Maurer said. “They must be translated into concrete co-operation, but I was surprised by how forthcoming my discussions were there.”