Widespread conflict since the military took control of Myanmar has increased the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) to nearly 900,000, according to the United Nations, and aid workers say that worsening food shortages are pushing the country ever closer to the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
Earlier this week, the U.N. Humanitarian Office said that 519,900 people had been displaced by clashes between the military and anti-junta forces throughout the country of 54 million since the Feb. 1, 2021, coup, bringing the total of IDPs in Myanmar to 890,300.
The estimate of IDPs, which adds to the 370,400 people who had already fled conflict zones in Myanmar prior to the coup, came as a rights group called on foreign governments to take stronger action against the military’s widespread abuses in the lead up to Armed Forces Day celebrations planned by the junta for the weekend.
The agency said that civilians are suffering the consequences of escalated fighting in northwestern Myanmar’s Magway and Sagaing regions and the southeastern states of Kayah and Kayin, while aid groups have been hampered by tight security. The four areas are centers of fierce resistance to junta rule and have seen some of the worst violence since the coup.
An aid worker who spoke to RFA’s Myanmar service on condition of anonymity said refugees in the isolated Kayah townships of Demawso and Phruso have only poor-quality rice to eat each day because roadblocks erected amid the clashes had led to food shortages.
“The situation in Phruso is particularly bad. There’s been a severe food shortage there for a long time because they don’t have rice fields in the area and no rice can be transported there,” the worker said. “Even if you have money, you can’t buy rice anywhere.”
The worker added that those who have sought shelter in makeshift camps are also suffering from shortages of drinking water and medicine.
In Sagaing region, where the military is engaged in a scorched earth campaign, junta troops have attacked villages, setting some on fire and forcing residents to flee.
A resident of Shar Lwin village in Sagaing’s Khin Oo township, where 63 houses were recently destroyed by arson during a military raid, said inhabitants are too frightened to return to the area and are facing a water shortage while in hiding.
“Many villagers are in trouble. We are hiding in the forest and … as summer approaches, the major problem is water scarcity,” he said.
“There are health problems due to the change in climate. Not just our village, but all the villages in the area are suffering. I’m praying for a quick end to these troubles.”
In Khin Oo’s Kala Lu and Shar Lwin villages alone, troops set fire to at least 327 homes during the month of March, displacing an estimated 2,500 people.
In Southern Chin state’s Kanpetlet township, a week of intense fighting between the military and the anti-junta Kanpetlet Chin Defense Force (CDF) from March 10-17, forced more than 1,000 people from 10 villages to flee to the jungles, residents said — most of them with only the clothes on their backs.
“Fighting has been going on for some time between the junta and the CDF and the military fired heavy weapons randomly into the area several times,” said one of the township’s residents, who also declined to be named.
“All the elderly, children and disabled are now hiding in the forests and mountains. When fighting broke out, people were not prepared, so they had to flee to safety in a rush with nothing they needed. Everyone is having a hard time without any food.”
Supply routes blocked
An official with the Chin Affairs Federation, who asked to be identified only as Mary, said the junta is actively blocking supplies to the area, exacerbating food shortages.
“People in the country are now living in fear. As soon as the soldiers enter a village, their priority is to destroy rice mills, if there are any. They always burn the rice mills first and then the barns,” she said.
“This is their strategy. When they cut off the food supplies, it becomes very difficult for people to survive. That’s the main problem facing IDPs in the country.”
She added that it was impossible to provide adequate assistance to refugees because of blocked food supply routes.
Ko Banyar, the director of the Karenni Human Rights Group, which helps refugees in Kayah state, called on the junta to reopen supply routes to alleviate hunger in the region.
“Food embargoes should never be imposed on IDPs emerging from conflict zones, regardless of the political situation,” he said. “The blockades must be reopened so that international aid can flow freely. These [IDPs] are the people of Myanmar, not enemies of the state.”
Ko Banyar also urged the U.N. to hold talks with the junta to ensure that refugees receive the help they desperately need.
The U.N. Humanitarian Office said staff have assisted refugees in northern Shan State but warned that the number of IDPs has increased drastically, as fighting intensified between the military and ethnic armed groups.
Last week, the agency said in a statement that despite an influx of humanitarian aid for 6.2 million non-IDPs in need of assistance, Myanmar has yet to receive funding for key sectors.
Marking Armed Forces Day
Also on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on concerned governments to strengthen economic sanctions against junta members and other senior military officers, as well as military-owned conglomerates, as it highlighted the military’s atrocities ahead of Armed Forces Day, observed in Myanmar on March 27.
The group also called for the United Nations Security Council to adopt a global arms embargo against Myanmar and refer the country situation to The Hague-based International Criminal Court over atrocities targeting civilians since the coup.
“Governments joining Myanmar’s Armed Forces Day celebrations are celebrating the military’s brutal suppression of its own people,” said Manny Maung, Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Governments should instead participate by enacting targeted sanctions against the generals and military businesses.”
On March 27, 2021, Myanmar security forces killed as many as 163 anti-coup protesters in deadly crackdowns in what is thought to be the bloodiest day of violence since military takeover.
Since the coup, security forces have killed people more than 1,700 civilians and arrested more than 9,900, according to Thailand’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
On Thursday, a joint report by Fortify Rights and the Schell Center for International Human Rights at Yale Law School identified 61 senior military and police officials who ordered abuses or are otherwise directly implicated in what it designated crimes against humanity in the first six months after the coup.
On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Biden administration had imposed sanctions on five Myanmar nationals and five entities in response to the junta’s crackdown on civilians.
In a statement that highlighted the deadly violence in Myanmar on Armed Forces Day last year, Blinken said that the sanctions were levelled by the administration “to show our strong support for the people of [Myanmar], and to promote accountability in connection with the coup and the violence perpetrated by the regime.”
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