Children under a makeshift dwelling at an IDP camp in Kayah State in June 2021. (Supplied)

Despite ceasefire, volunteers risk their lives to help over 100,000 fleeing conflict

A ceasefire in Kayah State was supposed to provide a temporary reprieve from clashes between Tatmadaw forces and local militias, but volunteer groups are still struggling to reach villagers who were driven from their homes.

By FRONTIER

One morning in the first week of June, Ma Cherry, who works at an aid organisation in Loikaw, the capital of Kayah State, was contacted by an old friend. 

It was a plea for help. The friend told Cherry, whose name has been changed for her safety, that she was sheltering with other internally displaced persons in a village at the foot of Loi Nan Pah mountain, in western Demoso township. 

“She said there are 1500 IDPs in the village where she is and no aid groups so far. At first, they shared food with each other, but they are facing a dangerous food shortage,” Cherry said.

Cherry’s group prepared to send food, medicine and material for shelters, but their efforts were complicated by the presence of security forces along the way. In the end it took nearly two days for aid from Loikaw to reach the village near Loi Nan Pah – a trip that would normally take just two hours.

“We cannot use the main road because soldiers are killing and arresting the people, including volunteers – we had to use the forest roads that link the villages,” she said. 

Waves of displacement 

In late May, the villages at the foot of the mountain began to fill with tens of thousands of people fleeing from the towns of Demoso and Loikaw and nearby villages. These two townships have become the main conflict zones in Kayah State, where the Tatmadaw has clashed with local People’s Defence Forces formed by the young opponents of the coup.

After the first clash in Demoso town on May 21, the fighting spread across much of the state, but was particularly heavy in Demoso, Loikaw and Hpruso townships. 

Initially, various people’s defence forces that had emerged in response to the Tatmadaw’s brutal crackdown on anti-coup protestors fought the security forces separately, but received assistance from some local ethnic armed groups, such as the Karenni Army, the armed wing of the Karenni National Progressive Party. On May 31, the PDFs and ethnic forces merged to create the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force as an umbrella organisation.  

During the clashes, the Tatmadaw employed heavy weapons, such as artillery and aircraft, prompting many residents to flee their homes. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that more than 100,000 people across the state have been displaced, along with several thousand more in neighbouring southern Shan State. 

Mu Paw, 26, fled from Loikaw to Htee Saw Daw Ywar Thit village in western Demoso township when soldiers started shooting at houses in the state capital.

“Two days after the fighting started in Demoso, the soldiers started to shoot and raided the houses in Loikaw, and military projectiles sometimes fell into the town. No one dared to stay – many people in the towns fled into the villages and the jungle,” she said. 

Mu Paw said that she and more than 1500 other IDPs sheltered in Htee Saw Daw Ywar Thit for two weeks, but they had to flee again during the second week of June when the military entered the area.

“The soldiers entered the villages near Loi Nan Pah mountain. So, we [IDPs from Loikaw] returned to town because Loikaw is stable at the moment,” she said. “But the IDPs who are from the eastern villages of Demoso had to flee into Daw Law Khu, which is further away.” 

Even in the village where Mu Paw stayed for two weeks, it was difficult for aid groups to send food and material for shelters because the Tatmadaw was threatening people using the road. 

“In the beginning, the food was still okay because most IDPs had carried rice and other food, but that all ran out eventually. And people who fled to more far-flung areas will definitely face food shortages,” Mu Paw said. 

The clashes have quieted since June 15, when the KNDF announced a temporary ceasefire with the Tatmadaw brokered by religious leaders. A KNDF member, who asked not to be named, said that they agreed to the ceasefire in order to make it easier for aid groups to reach those who had been displaced, but the Tatmadaw had failed to uphold its end of the deal. 

“It’s not an official ceasefire between us, but we have agreements not to disturb the IDPs from being aided. If they continue breaking the agreement, the fighting will begin,” he said.   

According to the KNDF, one-third of IDPs returned home after the ceasefire was declared, but the rest are reluctant to do so because there are Tatmadaw soldiers in their villages. 

A KNDF leader told Frontier on June 21 that the villagers in eastern Demoso do not dare return home, because soldiers have been patrolling Htee Po Kalo village tract.  

“They are doing clearance operations in those villages, raiding and searching the houses. Sometimes they enter the IDP camps around there. We confirmed that one woman died during their clearance operations,” said a KNDF leader who refused to provide his name. 

Internally displaced people under a makshift shelter in Kayah State in June 2021. (Supplied)

The regime cuts off aid 

With tens of thousands in desperate need of assistance, many people have donated to relief efforts. The fighting is not as widespread now, but clashes continue despite the ceasefire. This has continued to limit the ability of aid organisations to travel and deliver resources using the main roads.

The Foundation for Education and Development usually works to support migrants in Thailand and Myanmar, as well as education and other development projects for youth in Kayah State. Since the fighting started, though, it has shifted focus to supporting IDPs, says co-founder U Htoo Chit.

But this has proven extremely difficult, he said. Security forces have set up checkpoints on the three main roads into Kayah State – from Taungoo in Bago Region, from Nay Pyi Taw, and from Taunggyi in Shan State – and are searching vehicles. If soldiers find relief supplies, they usually seize and destroy them. 

“In the early days after the clashes, it was easy to send aid. Some could be bought from rice mills in Loikaw, and some could be shipped from Yangon. Medicines could be delivered by car from Yangon too. Some supplies were sent by airplane. But now it’s not easy like before,” he said. 

On June 10, the security forces destroyed a car carrying rice and medicines for IDPs in Moebye, a town that borders Kayah and Shan States. Since then, the Tatmadaw has seized relief supplies intended for IDPs, claiming that they are being used to support PDFs. 

On June 12, security forces detained two young men at a Loikaw highway bus station when they were fetching aid sent by donors in Yangon. Loikaw-based relief groups said that the two young men are volunteers with an aid organisation in the town and have been helping IDPs, but on June 14 the Tatmadaw announced they had been arrested because they were working for the PDFs.

Relief shipments continue to be stuck in Yangon because it is too dangerous and difficult to transport them to Kayah. According to Htoo Chit, donors are reluctant to send shipments that may be seized en route. 

“A lot of relief supplies are now arriving in Yangon from donors,” said Htoo Chit. “But it is risky to send my staff to go and retrieve the supplies, and the supplies may be seized by the security forces.”

Because the regime has cut road routes into Kayah State, Cherry said donors are instead sending money and aid groups are using it to buy supplies for IDPs from local shops.

However, because banks are limiting cash withdrawals, aid groups like Cherry’s rely on agents to get cash out of their accounts. This means they lose close to 10 percent of the donations they receive to agent fees, she said.  

Lives on the line

In Loikaw and Demoso, drivers go around with white flags flying from their cars and motorbikes in an attempt to deter the military from harming them. Sometimes even this is not enough to keep them safe. 

A Loikaw-based staff member of FED, who asked not to be named, said that at least two people driving motorcycles in the town were killed by the security forces although they were flying white flags.

“They returned to Loikaw to fetch food for their families who are taking shelter in the countryside. While driving on the road, they were shot by the security forces,” the staff member said. 

Similar cases have occurred in Demoso and other townships in Kayah State, but Frontier was unable to confirm the exact number of civilians who have died. The KNDF estimated that more than 20 civilians killed were intentionally targeted by the military. 

“[They] were not killed during clashes. They were deliberately targeted by the military,” the KNDF leader said. 

Some arrests have targeted people with a political background. On May 26, three volunteers, including the National League for Democracy’s former candidate for Bawlakhe, were arrested by the Tatmadaw near Loikaw as they returned from delivering aid to a village in Demoso. 

Htoo Chit said he is concerned about the safety of his volunteers. “I have more than 50 volunteers across Kayah State. They are young, so I worry that the military will mistake them for PDF members and detain them,” he said. 

He urged the Tatmadaw not to threaten local and international humanitarian workers, civil society groups and donors who want to help IDPs in Kayah. 

“According to international human rights standards, arresting and firing on people who are delivering food and medicine to IDPs … is a violation of human rights,” Htoo Chit said.  

Aid groups often rely on locals to ride ahead of their vehicles on motorbikes and check whether the road is safe, Cherry said. Although they do this voluntarily, it puts them at high risk.

“The motorbike driver goes to check whether there are security forces on the road before we move from village to village. If they are [present], we have to wait until the next day. It takes a lot of time, and it’s also dangerous for the motorbike driver,” Cherry told Frontier on June 16.

Although aid organisations avoid the Tatmadaw while delivering the supplies to IDPs, they don’t fear the PDFs. A member of one aid group in Loikaw said that when they meet the PDFs, they often receive help from them. 

“We don’t need to be afraid of the PDFs because they are our own neighbours who want to fight back against the coup government,” he said. 

A KNDF leader also told Frontier that they have been helping deliver assistance to IDPs when requested, but they have to be cautious about informers posing as aid workers. 

“We don’t want to see any difficulties for our people displaced by the recent clashes. It’s the main reason we halt the fighting temporarily,” he said. “I want to tell aid groups not to be careless just because of the ceasefire. Please be careful because the military is always heartless.” 

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