Burma: Continued fighting causes human rights abuses and health concerns in non-ceasefire areas
Lway Poe Ngeal is a Palaung woman who left Burma for better education opportunities in neighbouring Thailand. Now, she works with the Palaung Women’s Organization, which advocates for the rights of an ethnic minority community concentrated in northern Shan state.
Palaung civilians have become caught up in the violence between the Burma Army and armed ethnic militias, including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N). Upon returning from her most recent aid mission in early 2013, Poe Ngeal says there are at least 2,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) from Palaung communities living in five basic camps in northern Shan state near Kachin state. Aid has barely trickled in to these camps. Food and water shortages are common and medicine is difficult to obtain.
‘The new IDPs cannot access humanitarian aid. They don’t have shelter. They don’t have a safe place to stay. They don’t have food, water, or medicine too. They don’t have anything because they had to run away from their homes suddenly. It is a new life for them. They have to start their lives again.’
Many men have fled or migrated elsewhere in search of work. That means women are taking on increasing responsibilities and bearing the burden of displacement. For many women in the camps, one of the biggest fears is becoming pregnant again.
‘Some women tell me that they don’t want to get pregnant, because they don’t know when they will have to go on the run again. They don’t want to have to flee while pregnant. So they ask us to give them birth control. We try to give things like birth control pills and condoms, but we don’t have enough. They don’t know that you have to keep taking the pills and they don’t know where to get other medicine. So if we give them enough for one month, they just use it for one month, and that’s it. So they will get pregnant again.
‘One of the women in the camp was heavily pregnant when she had to run away. She suffered a miscarriage on the journey. Pregnant women have to stay in a safe place and not have anything to worry about except to take care of their own health. But she couldn’t do that. Then even after she miscarried, she still had to run.’
Increasingly, some Palaung farmers have had to turn to opium cultivation to survive. The increasing availability of narcotics has sparked an addiction problem. Poe Ngeal has seen the effects in the camps.
‘One of the fathers is a drug user. His wife has to starve because of it. Her husband doesn’t care about anything; he just cares about drugs. So when they fled from the fighting, she was pregnant. She gave birth to her baby after arriving in the camp. After, the family didn’t have anything to eat. Eventually, her husband took the baby and sold it. He trafficked the baby. It’s such a horrible story. We don’t know how we can help them. We can only support them with small humanitarian aid, but we can’t help everyone.’
Burma’s president, Thein Sein, has received international attention because of the country’s recent political reforms. But Poe Ngeal worries that these cautious changes have overshadowed the continuing humanitarian crisis in conflict zones.
‘There are still serious human rights violations in Palaung areas. You see the IDPs running away from their homeland. So how can they survive and live their lives? If the political situation is not stable, they cannot go back to their homeland. They cannot survive. That is very worrying for me.’
Case study taken from the Asia chapter of MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2013 report – focus on health
Photo: Palaung woman