Myanmar’s embattled Palaung minority call for aid partners

Protracted fighting in northern Myanmar is displacing entire villages, including those of ethnic Palaung, who say they need more help to build up local civil society groups to allow aid to flow more effectively to their people.

No Palaung NGOs are currently working with international aid groups.

“Our funding is very limited so it’s very difficult [to help internally displaced persons - IDPs],” Aye Nang, co-founder of the Palaung Women’s Organization (PWO), told IRIN. “[But] in terms of institutions, we are able to receive funding and give that support to the IDPs. What [NGOs] need is a humanitarian agency that would provide them support.”

The Palaung (also known as Ta’ang) are a Buddhist minority of around half a million living in the rugged hills of northern Shan State and the southern part of Kachin State, along the Myanmar-China border where violence re-ignited in 2011 after the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar government.

In 2011, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), a rebel force of an estimated 800 fighters, allied itself with the KIA, which has some 5,000. The two groups are the only armed rebels not to have struck bilateral ceasefireswith the government.

Like other ethnic minorities in Myanmar, the Palaung feel oppressed by the Burman-dominated government and seek greater autonomy for their region, which suffers from poverty, isolation and rampant drug use and cultivation.

Fighting between the TNLA and government troops intensified in the northern part of Shan State in 2013 and 2014: There were more than 100 clashes from January to June this year, leaving nearly 200 dead.

As a result of fighting, Palaung IDP numbers have been on the rise. A PWO report said the number of IDPs grew from 3,000 to 4,294 in 2013 after government troops in Palaung areas swelled from 16 to 30 battalions that year. 

Ei Ko, a 50-year-old widow and one of the roughly 370 Palaung residents in Nay Win Nee IDP camp near Namkham town who fled southern Kachin State in late 2012, said: “There is still fighting in our village… Now the area is more dangerous than before.”

Limited international support

International aid organizations have been providing food, water, shelter and sanitation assistance to IDP camps in government-controlled areas of northern Shan State where around 10,000 Kachin, Palaung and Shan civilians live, according to Pierre Péron, spokesman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Myanmar.

Following clashes in June 2014 which displaced 800 Palaung for about a month, the World Food Programme (WFP) and Save the Children also joined the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC), a large Christian organization, in distributing food and non-food items to the group who fled to Namkham town.

However, Palaung NGO leaders argue that their increased involvement in aid operations could bolster both their organizational capacity and access to people in need inside the war zone.

“The Palaung NGOs are still more like CBOs [community-based organizations]. They’re very small; we don’t have big groups to help our people,” said PWO’s general secretary De De Poe Jaing.

“The Kachin have institutions to channel international aid through. With the Palaung we don’t have that,” added Aye Nang.

The Kachin, a predominantly Christian minority of around 1.2 million people, are supported by many local NGOs - most prominently the KBC, which is 100 years old - that provide aid to tens of thousands of Kachin civilians in both rebel- and government-controlled areas, often in partnership with international organizations.

By comparison, the Palaung have only a few small civil society groups. The two most prominent organizations, PWO and the Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization, were both founded in a refugee camp in Mae Sot, Thailand, and have only been able to work openly in Shan State since 2012.

A 2014 report by The Asia Foundation argued that more international aid should go to supporting social services by specific ethnic organizations in Myanmar as they are often more effective than the government or international aid agencies in providing relief and social services, particularly in conflict areas.

“There are practical reasons, ethnic organizations have advantages based on their local knowledge of needs and understanding of the situation and language, and there are political reasons because they are better trusted by the local population,” the report’s author, Kim Jolliffe, told IRIN, adding that NGOs and social service organizations affiliated with ethnic armed forces have long played a vital role in providing relief, health care and local-language education for communities and IDP camps in conflict areas.

“The most important issue that local NGOs are needed for is supporting communities in hard-to-reach areas, especially for emergency care, government services are very poor at providing this,” he said.

Improved access, increased capacity

De De Poe Jaing said Palaung NGOs collect private donations and are able to offer support such as setting up camp committees in Palaung IDP camps, and providing emergency relief for people who temporarily flee ongoing violence in their home villages.

“There is daily fighting in northern Shan State. There are many villagers who have to leave their villages for three, four days and hide in the forest, and when they come back their homes are broken and looted,” she said, explaining that PWO provided support for such communities to return after fighting quietened down, for example by donating wood to repair damaged houses.

She said PWO would like to work with UN agencies to provide emergency aid to conflict-affected communities in these remote, dangerous areas - some of which are categorized as “black zones” by the Myanmar army, where access for foreign aid groups is restricted.

De De Poe Jaing said whole Palaung villages, home to hundreds of residents, are being temporarily displaced by ongoing conflict in northern Shan State at any given time.

“International groups cannot reach there because there is still fighting going on, but we can reach those unofficial camps,” she said. “We know the areas people go to hide and can go there to help them. We can take WFP emergency aid to them.”

She said international support would also serve to build up her organization’s capacity to provide much-needed services as fighting and displacement continue: “We still want and need more capacity-building to become more effective.”