Violent clashes break out during northern Myanmar’s dry season

6 March, 2015
Feb 2015, Shan State, Myanmar: Aung Soe and his daughter at an IDP transit site in the city of Lashio in northern Shan State. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting in the region since the start of the year. Credit: OCHA/M.Aung
Feb 2015, Shan State, Myanmar: Aung Soe and his daughter at an IDP transit site in the city of Lashio in northern Shan State. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced by fighting in the region since the start of the year. Credit: OCHA/M.Aung
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The dry season is an important time for humanitarian organizations in Myanmar’s Kachin and northern Shan States. When the rains arrive in May, the unpaved roads make it difficult to reach many of the remote camps and communities that are home to 98,000 people still displaced by the conflict that has gripped this area since 2011. Unfortunately, the dry season is also the time when fighting between government forces and different armed groups is at its worse.

In the first two months of 2015 alone, tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their homes following clashes between the Myanmar Army and a number of ethnic armed groups in Kachin and northern Shan states.

The most recent flare-up in fighting began on 9 February in the Kokang area of northern Shan State between government troops and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and other armed groups.

At least 13,000 people, mostly migrant workers, have fled Kokang to other parts of Myanmar and tens of thousands of people have reportedly crossed the border into China.

“We heard gunfire and explosions”: families recount their ordeals

Twenty-six year old migrant worker Aung Soe* (pictured) was working on a sugar cane plantation in Kokang in northern Shan State when the fighting started. “We heard gunfire and explosions, so we hid in the plantation for a week,” he told an OCHA staff member in Lashio, the largest two in the region.

After running out of food, Aung Soe, his wife, his four-year daughter, and hundreds of others at the plantation had no choice but to walk to China. They stayed at a makeshift camp for three days before Chinese authorities returned them to Myanmar via a border crossing further to the south, away from the fighting.

Aung Soe and his family are now in Lashio in the care of the local community and the Myanmar authorities, who will soon transport them hundreds of miles back to their original home in Magway.

While the fighting continues, national authorities in Myanmar have taken the lead in providing assistance to displaced people, with support from local NGOs and civil society groups, as well as the Myanmar Red Cross, who are also reuniting families separated by the conflict.

Despite the limited access to the area, OCHA has been able to deploy staff to Lashio to assess needs and assist in the coordination of the response.

Aid workers under fire

Humanitarian workers themselves have also been directly affected by the heavy fighting. In two separate incidents in a week, three Red Cross volunteers were injured by gunfire while evacuating civilians from the conflict zone.

In response, Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Renata Dessallien issued a statement calling on all parties to the conflict to “ensure the safety and security of humanitarian staff and remind them of their obligations under International Humanitarian Law.”

The increased insecurity in the region has also affected humanitarian and development projects, with organizations forced to suspend some operations right when they are needed the most.

With the rainy season fast approaching, water and sanitation facilities urgently need to be upgraded and shelters must be repaired in camps for displaced people in Kachin and northern Shan States. A nationwide measles and rubella immunisation campaign was postponed in Kokang by the insecurity, putting children already affected by the conflict at further risk.

With an unresolved national ceasefire process between the Myanmar Government and ethnic armed groups, and national elections approaching in November 2015, many fear that clashes in Kachin and northern Shan States will continue to flare up.

In the meantime, all that people like Aung Soe and his family can do is go to a safe place to wait for the rains to begin, and the fighting to stop.

* Name changed