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A UN spokesperson on Tuesday warned of “immense” challenges in reaching displaced Kachin who have fled into rebel-held territories in northern Burma, two days after a convoy of humanitarian aid reached the government-controlled Hpakant region for the first time since the conflict began.
“The government has publicly made its approval for humanitarian assistance to go to non-government held territory,” Aye Win from the UN Information Centre in Rangoon told DVB. “However, the logistical and security challenges are immense and have their corresponding administrative considerations. Until all these can be worked out and guarantees given for all these considerations, a convoy [to rebel-held territories] cannot leave.”
The Burmese government has previously been criticised for blocking international aid from reaching many of the 80,000 people displaced by the 20-month conflict, especially those hiding in territories controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Only two UN convoys have ever reached the KIA headquarters in Laiza — squeezed against the Chinese border in north-eastern Burma — where local aid workers warn of an “urgent” food crisis.
It follows news that a convoy carrying humanitarian aid, including food, shelter, mosquito nets and basic medical supplies, arrived on Sunday in the jade-rich Hpakant region, which has been devastated by the escalating fighting between government and rebel forces. The KIA was forced to withdraw its troops from the Hpakant region in late January, after the Burmese army stepped up its military offensive against the rebels, using both military air power and heavy artillery.
Recent reports suggest that looters have since run amok in the resource-rich area, robbing local jade mines and the homes of small-scale miners, who were forced to abandon their belongings and flee for their lives.
“The UN Refugee Agency, the World Food Programme and the UN Development Programme sent 10 trucks to deliver aid to Hpakant and Kamaing; three carrying UN personnel and seven carrying aid material,” Bauk Ja, a National Democratic Force MP, confirmed to DVB on Monday.
She said the convoy is now distributing aid to over 5,000 refugees, who are currently taking shelter inside 41 camps around Hpakant. But the UN has warned that “humanitarian assistance must flow uninterrupted as long as people are in need.”
The government, who has repeatedly claimed to be acting in “self-defence”, blames the rebels for carrying out guerrilla attacks on local roads and supply routes, while the KIA insists they are being tactically isolated and targeted by the army.
The KIA has been locked in a bloody battle with government troops since a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011. More than 80,000 civilians have been displaced and so far numerous attempts at peace-talks have failed.
But the UN also expressed optimism that recent tentative ceasefire talks between government and rebel forces, held in the Chinese border town Ruili on 4 February, could improve humanitarian access. A delegation of government and rebel leaders are set to meet with members of the United Nationalities Federal Council – an umbrella group for ethnic militias throughout Burma – in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Wednesday, in a further bid to end the war.
“The sooner that these [issues] are resolved, the sooner can aid delivery start to the IDPs [internally displaced persons] who are in dire need,” said Aye Win.
The ongoing conflict severely dents the reformist credentials of President Thein Sein, who has successfully brokered ceasefire deals with ten out of the eleven major armed groups in Burma. The KIA, which is fighting for greater autonomy and ethnic rights, insists they want a genuine political solution, before a ceasefire can be reached.
– Additional reporting by Hanna Hindstrom