As Troops Withdraw, Kachin Refugees Fear Return

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THURSDAY, 02 FEBRUARY 2012

Tens of thousands of refugees who have fled to shelters along Burma’s border with China since fighting erupted in Kachin state last year fear that retreating Burmese troops will sabotage their passage home, despite tentative signs that the conflict is winding down.

Laric, coordinator of the Refugee Assistance Groups Network, which is working in the region, warned those displaced against attempting to find their way back to their villages. Up to 70,000 have been forced to flee since June 2011, many to Kachin rebel territory close to China.

“The refugees – even their children – are very keen to go home but there’s no chance for them without a guarantee [for their safety]from the government, the UN or the KIO,’ said Laric, referring to the Kachin Independence Organisation, whose armed wing has been battling the government for more than seven months.

Numbers of refugees have made sporadic trips home to tend to their crops and livestock, although would often return to the camps. But supplies are low, thanks largely to a government blockade on international assistance to the Kachin living in rebel territory – one convoy carrying blankets and food was allowed to visit the KIO’s headquarters in Laiza last December, but nothing since.

UN envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana is currently in Burma where he is expected to press the government on allowing greater access for aid agencies. At present, the reflief has been largely coordinated by local groups channelling aid across the border from China.

Laric warned that conditions in the 30 camps along the border were worsening – many families have been sheltering under tarpaulins supplied only as an emergency measure last year, and which have little durability, while food stocks have consistently been low.

A UN official in Rangoon told DVB yesterday that it was “not at a stage when we can deliver another aid convoy” but would maintain pressure on the government, which is resistant towards allowing international groups to access regions controlled by anti-Naypyidaw armies.

The Wun Pawng Ninghtoi aid group, also in Kachin state, told IRIN earlier this week that conditions in some of the camps were dire, with unsanitary conditions combining with cold weather to give rise to preventable diseases such as stomach parasites.

It said that in one camp that houses around 1,200 refugees, only five latrines were available.

Burmese troops last week began pulling out from areas around Mansi in Kachin state, although the same brigade was subsequently seen travelling in a convoy through northern Shan state, towards volatile areas through which the Shwe pipeline will run, suggesting it was a redeployment rather than withdrawal.

Negotiations took place between government officials and the KIO in the Chinese border town of Ruili a fortnight ago, but ended with both sides failing to agree to an end to fighting.

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