Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camps Illustrate the Human Cost of War in Burma
by Stephen Gray
One expects to encounter challenging situations when researching peace and conflict in developing countries. But I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered today when I visited an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Kachin State in Burma, the country where we have been researching for the past fortnight. For me, witnessing such unnecessary suffering up close and personal served as a reminder that conflict transformation can be learned in the classroom, but ultimately the real work must take place in the field.
An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced by the fighting that ignited in June last year between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organisation/Army. As of today, 6,814 people reside in the camp I visited, one of several that exists in around the area where fighting is still taking place. That the Kachin conflict continues daily and shows no sign of abating despite the raft of ceasefire agreements with other ethnic groups is in itself a reminder to be cautious about the (well intentioned but misleading) pro-reform, pro-peace message that we are hearing coming out of Burma.
Most of the IDPs I met today abandoned their villages to walk through miles of jungle paths laden with landmines and frequented by all-to-trigger-happy Burmese snipers. Human rights abuses of the civilian population have been well documented. The suffering of the people is palpable. The kids smile, run around and throw stones – as kids do – but the older people are less eager to smile. They look worried, exasperated and uncertain about how to escape the situation that the motives of others has inflicted upon them.
The camp’s health coordinator confided that diarrhea symptoms are spreading rapidly in the camp. Not surprising when most don’t boil the water, when people are crammed together with little in the way of sanitary facilities, where malaria is rife and where three families share make shift huts the size of the lounge in my apartment. Typhoid is also becoming a problem and the ray season brings cold, flu, and other ill-health to people who are less than impervious to the threat. Malaria, typhoid and diarrhea treatments are urgently needed, as are mosquito nets, blankets, treatments for seasonal influenza, and trained medical personnel.
These people have lived in this camp for 13 months. The UN has visited once and provides no assistance whatsoever (that I know of, though future humanitarian assistance is apparently planned). One Chinese NGO is providing assistance, but the rest of us are absent. I understand that there is political sensitiveness in supporting these people, but this is simply unacceptable. The international community should and could be doing more for the Kachin.
On a brighter note, the local (non Burmese) authorities provide incredible support. The street lights they recently installed in the camp will begin working soon. They build shelters for the IDPs and give them $70 for supplies from the (surprisingly well-stocked) markets. They provide health services and are even rebuilding the school that was destroyed in a flood earlier this year. Their self-reliance and complete absence-of-a-victim mentality is truly admirable.
So it begs the question, if local authorities can find means of helping these people, why can’t we?
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