A recent escalation in attacks by Burmese government forces in northern Kachin State, including air strikes, has left internally displaced persons (IDPs) and residents in and around Laiza town, close to the Chinese border, in fear, aid workers say.
Laiza (population 20,000) is the de facto capital of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), which has been fighting for greater autonomy from the Burmese government for the past six decades.
“People are really scared at the moment. Even today there were bombs and gunfire,” La Rip, a spokesman for the Relief Action Network for IDPs and Refugees (RANIR), a network of organizations engaged in relief work in the area, told IRIN.
Some 15,000 people are now living in four camps in and around the town. “The atmosphere is very tense,” said La Rip, noting many of the town’s markets and stores had closed.
“Many of the IDPs are digging bunkers to protect their families, said Shirley Seng, supervisor of the Kachin Women's Association of Thailand (KWAT). “The children are severely affected not only because of the lack of food, but now the added mental stress and fear of air strikes.”
On 14 January, three civilians were killed and four injured following a mortar attack in Laiza.
“There have been nearly 2,000 recent IDPs from Northern Shan State [which also borders China], as a result of fighting in the area, and many are leaving their homes because they can now hear the planes and artillery,” said Seng.
According to the UN, there are up to 75,000 IDPs in Kachin State. More than half are in KIA-controlled areas, where access is limited and humanitarian assistance is urgently needed.
The Burmese military ramped up its offensive in December, and began using Russian-made Mi-35 helicopters and jet fighters, said the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian group working in the area.
Civilians not targeted, says government
The state-owned Myanmar News Agency said the military used the aircraft to clear rebels from a hilltop not far from the Chinese border - a report confirmed by the government on 16 January.
“The purpose of the operation was to keep supply routes open to our troops in the Lajayan area,” Ye Htut, Myanmar's presidential spokesman, told IRIN. “The Myanmar military never attacked civilian targets.”
However, according to activists, the situation now calls for both sides to exercise maximum restraint.
“Both the army and the KIA must ensure that civilians caught [up] in the conflict area are protected. The three tragic deaths in Laiza show that there are real concerns that civilian lives might be at risk if indiscriminate fire is used,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director.
Since the escalation began, RANIR has reported five civilian casualties - two outside the town and three inside.
Calls for access
Earlier this month, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern over the recent escalation, and called for reconciliation.
“The Secretary-General calls upon the Myanmar authorities to desist from any action that could endanger the lives of civilians living in the area or further intensify the conflict in the region,” he said in a statement.
“The ongoing hostilities have already caused large-scale displacement of civilians who continue to be in need of humanitarian assistance… It is vital that timely access be provided for the delivery of aid to vulnerable communities.”
During her visit to the country in December, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos discussed with President Thein Sein her concern about the lack of humanitarian access in parts of Kachin State, particularly with the onset of winter; a call echoed by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on 17 January.
“There needs to be unfettered consistent access for international humanitarians to all parts of Kachin State,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia. “There needs to be more international pressure and efforts to press the Burmese government and the president's office to permit international humanitarian aid into all areas of Kachin State, with no exceptions.”
Fighting broke out in June 2011 between government forces and KIA troops following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire.