Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camps Illustrate the Human Cost of War in Burma

by Stephen Gray

Picture of Numbers_Myanmar/Burma Project

The number of IDPs in this camp as of July 6, 2012

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.

Picture of IDP Camp_Myanmar/Burma Project

Home for three families

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.

Local children explore the IDP camp's market

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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  • Babs says:

    It is simply wrong to suggest that EU sanctions worked in Burma. The EU and US imposed sanctions on Burma for the best part of two decades. The only discernable outcomes were to impoverish to Burmese people, and to drive the country into the arms of China. Yes, they irritated the military regime, but, without the support of the front-line states, they were never more than an irritation. The constitutional change in Burma which is very welcome was always part of the regime’s game-plan, and they delivered it precisely according to their timetable. I hope that events will now take on their own momentum and we will see further reform. The EU decision to lift sanctions is a good move which may encourage reform. But that does not mean the sanctions themselves were good policy. A few years ago, a House of Lord committee asked the Government to carry out an assessment of the effects of sanctions on Burma. The Goverment refused. Surely now is the time to conduct such a review. Let’s see what an examination of the evidence shows, before you claim that sanctions worked.

    • Evelyn says:

      As a human being and a concerned cieiztn of the UK, I would be sad and disgusted if the pressure on the Burmese dictatorship, was lessened before any real changes to the treatment of civilians has happened.Does the UN Charter insist that women are raped and impregnated by soldiers, and men are murdered?

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