Photos taken by children in camps for displaced people have put a spotlight on long-running humanitarian crises in the country’s north, west and east
Controversy is raging over the scale of a brutal crackdown in Rakhine state amid concerns that State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi is unable to reign in troops accused of ethnic cleansing and sparking a massive exodus of people to Bangladesh.
But rights groups and other non-government groups monitoring victims of conflict and refugees from Myanmar say the country’s humanitarian problems run far deeper than the crisis in the troubled western state.
A forum in Bangkok last week – which coincided with the launch of a short video about people in IDP camps plus an exhibition of photos taken by children in camps in the west, north and east – have put the spotlight firmly on humanitarian crises in various ethnic regions (see sidebar).
Business may be flourishing in Yangon, with the phasing out of sanctions imposed by the US and other trading partners, but misery and uncertainty prevail in parts of Kachin and Shan States in the north and even near the border with Thailand in areas adjacent to Tak province due to recent clashes with the Burmese Army.
David Baulk, from the group Fortify Rights, noted that nearly a quarter of a million people were stuck in squalid camps for IDPs – internally displaced people – in Rakhine and Kachin states prior to the intensified fighting that has flared since October.
The military has refused to allow humanitarian aid to camps in areas controlled by the Kachin, Baulk says, claiming that it could be used to |support the resistance. That means the displaced face the threat of landmines and huge costs for basic foods in |government-controlled areas.
“This is creating severe chronic poverty and an avoidable deprivation in Kachin and Rakhine states notably,” he says.
The government claimed it has killed more than 100 insurgents in Rakhine state but 130,000 have been denied access to aid, he said. About 3,000 children are suffering chronic malnutrition, so the government must grant unfettered access to the area. “It is one year after Suu Kyi’s victory [in the national election] and that assistance and intervention is desperately needed.”
Kachin activist Khon Ja said that “everything has gone backwards over the past six months,” with arrests, villagers being tortured and disappearances still going on. More than 360 villages were destroyed in 2015 but in recent months many people with HIV and TB had been unable to get access to drugs. Three IDP camps set up in 2014 were not getting aid and it was not possible for the people to buy or grow rice in areas where there is |frequent fighting.
“It’s like a disaster,” she said. Thirty tonnes of rice was delivered to camps near Laiza in October but none last month and they actually needed 38 tonnes a month. There were also big problems with teenage single mothers. “All this is happening while the |country is open to investment. They need to restore humanitarian access immediately. Ten per cent of Kachin are living in camps already.”
Sally Thompson from The Border Consortium, which provides food and goods for refugee camps in Thailand, said that despite bilateral agreements and preparations for about 100,000 refugees to go back to their homeland, there had been minimal returns to Myanmar because of limited changes on the ground in the southeast. People had been looking to the national ceasefire agreement but there had been |little progress in peace talks.
“Mistrust runs very deep,” she told the forum at the FCCT. “People in areas across the border are seeing conflict over control of areas for commercial development and natural resources. At the moment IDPs and refugees aren’t a priority, because there are so many other issues to be dealt with. It could take years. We expect things to suddenly happen, but they aren’t.”
Documentation – proper ID and citizenship – could help the refugees, Thompson said.
“It gives people freedom of movement. People have been confined to camps along the border, some of them for as long as 30 years. They don’t have freedom of movement or the right to work, so people can take responsibility for themselves in their daily lives.
“Meanwhile IDPs in Myanmar are invisible because access is denied to these camps and humanitarian operations.”
Life without a future
“Through the Eyes of an IDP” is a project set up by British photographer Kayla Richards with children in camps in Myanmar. Thirty children from Karen, Kachin and Rohingya ethnic groups were given a disposable camera and a notebook and asked to take shots of their everyday lives. No guidance was given on what to take pictures.
The photos – and a video she made with people at IDP camps in three areas – aim to raise awareness of the plight of people caught up in Myanmar’s never-ending ethnic wars – “to show that if the current civil conflict does not end, what these children photograph and live through everyday will be the future of the next generation”.
The results exceeded her expect-ations, with many “eye-opening photos from each child”. The images show the struggles of life as an IDP in Myanmar, “moments that only they could capture, and the innocence of children”. They also revealed a level of maturity some |children have gained due to the trauma they have lived through.
See the photos at the Foreign Correspondents Club till tomorrow.
Watch the video at https://vimeo.com/194490767.