More than 100 days after Myanmar’s military took power from the country’s democratically elected government, fighting between troops and ethnic insurgents has left tens of thousands of displaced women and children facing a humanitarian crisis, groups monitoring the situation said Thursday.
Since launching a Feb. 1 coup, the military, or Tatmadaw, has gone on the offensive in Myanmar’s remote Kachin and Karen states, regularly conducting airstrikes against insurgents in the two regions. The intensified clashes have caused hundreds of thousands of residents to flee their homes and rely on aid as internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The Karen National Union’s (KNU’s) Fifth Brigade announced on March 5 that it would stand with protesters nationwide in demanding the return of a federal democracy, prompting an intensification of fighting with the Tatmadaw. Refugees have said that around 100,000 people have since been displaced from the Fifth Brigade’s area of control alone—more than 80 percent of whom are women, children, and the elderly.
An aid worker in the Fifth Brigade’s territory told RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity that many of the IDPs are now suffering from an array of health problems.
“Due to the ongoing rains and lack of clean drinking water, diarrhea is a big problem,” the worker said, adding that even when donations are plentiful, transporting them to the remote region is logistically challenging.
“The women and children suffer the most. They suffer in every aspect—not only their health, but they also endure social and educational difficulties.”
Since airstrikes in Karen’s Hpapun district forced around 10,000 people to flee the area in late March, the aid worker said, at least 200 adults and children have been suffering from diarrhea and other health issues.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the coup, assistance from United Nations agencies like the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) to refugees in Kachin state has dwindled, as access has been cut off during increased clashes in the region.
The fighting in Kachin state, which borders China, has flared up in recent weeks as junta forces staged major attacks to try to retake a military camp at Alawbwan that was captured by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in April.
Kalam Samson, chairman of the Kachin Baptist Council, which is assisting Kachin refugees, said local organizations like his have been working hard to pick up the slack with limited means.
“It is true that the U.N. assistance for relief under certain projects has greatly dropped,” he said.
According to Kalam Samson, prior to the coup, there were around 120,000 refugees displaced by violence in Kachin and neighboring Shan state. He said that while some have returned home, many remain in refugee camps.
Renewed fighting between KIA and the military over the past three months has increased the number of refugees in the regions by about 3,000, he said.
Children at risk nationwide
The updates on the situation facing IDPs in Myanmar’s remote ethnic regions follows a warning last week by Marc Rubin, the emergency services advisor for UNICEF’s East Asia and Pacific Division, that children throughout the France-sized country of 54 million are in the midst of a dire “humanitarian crisis” in the aftermath of the coup.
“The delivery of key services for children has already been seriously disrupted. Close to one million children lack access to routine vaccines; almost five million are missing out on Vitamin A supplementation; nearly 12 million risk losing another year of learning; more than 40,000 children are without treatment for severe acute malnutrition; close to 280,000 vulnerable mothers and children will lose access to cash transfers which protect them from poverty,” he said.
“The combination of a lack of access to key services and economic contraction puts a whole generation of children and young people in peril. Without urgent action, these children will suffer many negative impacts—physical, psychological, emotional, educational and economic.”
Sources confirmed to RFA that even in Myanmar’s more populated regions, the military takeover has brought hardship to the country’s children.
A mother in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon said the situation there had worsened significantly since the coup and that she dares not send her children to school because of safety concerns.
“They lost their education for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic and now, this year, because of the uncertainty, they won’t be able to go to school again,” she said.
“All parents want to send their kids to a safe school environment, but even the adults are not safe at home. How can we believe our kids will be safe without us at school?”
Daw Nu, a mother of five in Yangon’s Insein township, said between the pandemic and the military crackdown, it has been nearly impossible to earn a living.
“Business is bad. Workers have lost their jobs,” she said. “We are not ready to send our children to school yet. We can’t even put enough food on our tables.”
Prioritizing international aid
Tin Tun Naing, Finance and Investment Minister for Myanmar’s opposition shadow government, the National Unity Government (NUG), called for increased aid amidst the ongoing unrest.
“One of our government policies is to use international assistance as a top priority for those affected by the coup,” he said.
“We are holding talks with our allies. We are drawing up plans to get ahold of the assistance meant for our country that has been halted because of the coup. We will divert this assistance to those in need.”
Last week, UNICEF and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) jointly issued a report entitled, “COVID-19, Military Coup, Rising Poverty and Impact on Human Development in Myanmar” in which they warned that 12 million people could be pushed into poverty if the impact of the coup is not addressed in time, with women and children most likely to be affected.
According to UNICEF Myanmar, nearly 10 million children have already seen their education disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic and the unrest since the February coup has only worsened the situation. The agency has said it is working with local nongovernmental organizations to scale up home-based learning opportunities.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.