Lull in fighting allows access to thousands displaced in Myanmar

Aid workers are planning to take advantage of a lull in fighting in Myanmar’s Shan State to assess the needs of thousands of people displaced by clashes between the military and an ethnic armed group that began eight weeks ago.

Myanmar’s military has used airstrikes as well as ground troops against the Shan State Army-North, and fierce exchanges have forced civilians to flee. The violence, which erupted on 6 October, has prevented humanitarian workers from reaching internally displaced people in the central Shan State township of Mongshu.

“With a pause in the fighting, the UN is currently planning to visit two IDP sites in the Mongshu area that were previously inaccessible due to insecurity to conduct an assessment of humanitarian needs,” said Mark Cutts, head of the Myanmar office of the United Nations emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.

Fighting has raged in two more townships, but Mongshu was particularly hard hit, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation. The group accused the military of using aerial bombing and artillery, which displaced 7,500 people over four days beginning on 9 November, the day after Myanmar’s historic parliamentary elections.

Such reports are difficult to verify as the military has no spokesperson and the government restricts access to many areas. Calls to the Myanmar Peace Centre, which the government set up to handle peace negotiations, were not returned.

About 10,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since 6 October, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation. But a member of the group, Sai Hor Hseng, told IRIN that exact numbers are hard to determine because some people are in camps, while others are staying with relatives, and many are going back and forth to their farms to harvest crops.

The UN estimates that about 4,000 people remain in temporary locations, while others have returned home as fighting waned over the past few days. “The UN has not been able to independently verify these figures and the situation remains fluid and figures continue to vary,” Cutts told IRIN.

Myanmar has been riven by ethnic conflict since independence from Britain in 1948, and around two-dozen ethnic armed groups continue to operate. Some are in open rebellion, while others have bilateral ceasefire agreements with the government, though clashes occur regularly.

A Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed 15 October is meant to provide a foundation for negotiations to create a federal state that would provide some autonomy and resolve grievances of ethnic minorities. But only eight of the 15 groups invited to sign the agreement did so. The government refused to let some groups take part in negotiations, while others refused to sign the accord unless all groups were invited to, and they accused the military of undermining negotiations by launching offensives against them.

SEE: Myanmar’s ceasefire accord, progress or propaganda?

Some ethnic armed groups are hoping the results of the 8 November elections will invigorate the peace process. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, which was formed to oversee the reform process ushered in after 49 years of military rule, has lost control of parliament. Voters instead gave Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party a sweeping majority.

Aung San Suu Kyi is scheduled to meet President Thein Sein and military chief Min Aung Hlaing separately tomorrow in the capital, Naypyitaw, to discuss “national reconciliation”, the state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported today.

In practical terms, there is little Aung San Suu Kyi can do to influence the outcome of peace talks. Under the military-drafted constitution, she is barred from the presidency, and the military continues to hold a quarter of parliamentary seats and controls ministries that oversee security. Yet, she holds tremendous moral authority after decades fighting for democracy – including 16 years under house arrest – and the election results attest to her massive political support.

“We welcome and hope that the winning of NLD will be a leading step to build a federal democratic union for the whole country to live in peace and harmony,” said an 11 November statement from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, another ethnic armed group that is battling the military as well as drug-dealing pro-government militias.

SEE: The drug war in Myanmar's mountains