By Hanna Hindstrom
Chinese authorities have begun to explore locations for refugee camps along their border as hundreds of people pour into Laiza to escape the escalating violence between Burmese troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), according to local sources.
The head of the Kachin Independence Organisation’s (KIO) refugee committee told DVB that Chinese officials have for the first time discussed with them the possibility of accepting refugees into their territories.
“We see big changes in this last month,” said Salang Kaba Doi Pyi Sa, head of the IDPs and Refugees Relief Committee (IRRC). “We have now talked about relocating IDPs to a location near Yinjiang [in Yunnan province].”
China has long downplayed the intensity of the Kachin conflict and even outright denied the existence of refugees on their side of the border, currently estimated at 7,000. Until recently, residents regularly witnessed soldiers at the official border gate in the heart of Laiza wielding batons and shields in an apparent display of force to deter unwanted guests.
The shift marks a significant, though tacit, admission that a refugee crisis is looming, as the Burmese army steps up its military assault on Laiza. Mortar fire could be heard through the night on Thursday as rebels fought to take back a Burmese artillery post dug into the hilltops.
“It is the first time we have heard mortar shells firing into the night,” explains a KIO official, who asked not to be named. “They have more troops and better artillery than us.”
According to the KIO, as many as 1,200 new IDPs have arrived in Laiza since late April when the Burmese army seized three key positions in the surrounding mountain range. Fighting now rages less than six miles away from Hotel Laiza, a faded pink building that squares against the Chinese border passage, and forms the headquarters of the KIO.
Aid workers also warn of a growing food and health crisis as the escalating fighting prevents humanitarian convoys from getting through. The UN is currently on standby in Bhamo waiting for permission to pass from the Burmese government. It would be their first convoy to visit Laiza since December last year.
But the route to Bhamo has been cut and the only passageway is through China, which continues to block humanitarian aid from reaching displaced Kachin.
“Even individual [Chinese] donors who want to help can’t do it legally,” explains Layang Naw Ja, an administrator of the 6,000 strong Jeyang camp squeezed between the hilltops and the porous border. “They have to smuggle rice supplies over the border, because it is considered illegal export activity.”
Jeyang camp currently spends ¢3-4 (USD) per person on food each day, amounting to two cups of rice and oil. They lack basic health supplies and share one toilet between over fifty IDPs. As hundreds more flood through the gates, a feverish effort to build new homes before the rainy season has gotten under way with lines of half-finished bamboo huts poking through the hillside.
But fear is constant as the camp is now in immediate reach of Burmese shells. “The reason we are so worried about the IDPs is that if the Burmese army really want to attack Laiza then the mortars can only reach the camps,” said Salang Kaba Doi Pyi Sa.
“The place where we built the camp is supposed to be the safest place, so there are no more options if attacks come through, then they have to cross the border.”