Local groups offer vital assistance to newly displaced in Myanmar

UNHCR is partnering with local communities and faith groups to help an estimated 200,000 people driven from their homes by fresh violence since February's military takeover.

By Reuben Lim Wende in Myitkyina, Myanmar | 22 July 2021 | Español | Français

Armed conflict is sadly nothing new for 27-year-old Nway Nway Htay. An ethnic Rakhine woman originally from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State, she became familiar with the sounds of artillery and gunfire as the Myanmar Armed Forces, locally known as the Tatmadaw, battled ethnic armed groups in her native state. Security was something she constantly worried about.

“I may be used to the sound of gunshots, but the fear is always there,” she said. “Last year, I came back to Rakhine to give birth when fighting erupted near the hospital. The explosions made the process even more stressful.”

Following the birth of her son, Nway Nway Htay returned to Kachin State, a mountainous region wedged between India and China, where she had been living with her ethnic Kachin husband for two years. There, the couple worked the land along with a small group of villagers, growing oranges as cash crops in Injangyang Township to support themselves.

Nway Nway Htay’s move to a rural corner of Myanmar’s northernmost state in 2019 was made in the hopes of living a more peaceful life. While also embroiled in its own ethnic armed conflict, prospects for peace in Kachin State had been improving. Negotiations between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) were making headway. Major hostilities ceased in late 2018, while smaller-scale skirmishes had largely subsided by the end of 2020.

"I may be used to the sound of gunshots, but the fear is always there."

That all changed in 2021. Following a military takeover on 1 February, Myanmar was plunged into a crisis that saw the spread and intensification of fighting in many areas. Violence resurfaced once again in Kachin State, including frequent heavy clashes and airstrikes.

Nway Nway Htay is one of an estimated 200,000 people across the country forced to flee their homes by the upsurge of armed conflict. One sunny day in mid-March, she was at home with her son when the sound of gunshots echoed between the hills. Having experienced similar incidents before in Rakhine State, Nway Nway Htay’s first instinct was to stay inside the safety of her home. Moments later, her husband burst through the door saying they had to leave. The fighting was getting closer.

By the time Nway Nway Htay stepped outside, the village had emptied and they were the last to leave. Her anxiety grew as they fled. “The Tatmadaw and KIA were constantly firing at each other and a soldier we encountered warned us of landmines in the area. Each step we took filled me with dread,” she recalled.

The family eventually reached the banks of the Malikha River where a boat transported them to a nearby safe zone. There, they hid with other villagers for five days before making their way by motorbike to the Kachin State capital, Myitkyina. With little more than what they could carry on their backs, the family called on a relative who took them in.

Seeking the assistance of relatives is often the preferred choice for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar, a country with a strong tradition of extended family support and community solidarity. Religious affiliation often also determines how assistance is sought. Buddhists prefer to approach Buddhist charities and shelter at monasteries while Christians often receive assistance from Christian organizations and seek refuge at church compounds.

Host families and communities therefore act as crucial first responders, offering material assistance such as shelter and food as well as psychological support in the form of emotional and spiritual security.

In Nway Nway Htay’s case, her husband’s religious affiliation as a Baptist led to the family seeking assistance from the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC). The ethnic Kachin are predominantly Christian and faith-based organizations like KBC play a prominent role in supporting IDPs within Kachin State. Many facilitate the day to day running of IDP camps and mobilize resources to support new arrivals.

"We have to find them so that no one is left behind."

“These organizations spearhead humanitarian responses and our role is to reinforce their capacity, introduce best practices and complement their interventions,” explained Cliff Alvarico, UNHCR’s Head of Office in Myitkyina. Since 2012, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been helping KBC and other faith-based organizations optimize resources to assist displaced populations and ensure a swift response.

“We also ensure that those who stay outside of IDP camps remain on our radar and receive the same level of assistance as those inside,” he added. “Wherever they are, we have to find them so that no one is left behind.”

The focus on assisting IDPs outside of camps is particularly pertinent in Kachin State. Many existing camps in urban centres face space constraints as they already host thousands of IDPs displaced up to a decade before the recent resurgence of armed conflict. New arrivals have therefore on occasion been asked to seek temporary accommodation elsewhere.

"Restarting will not be easy."

Though hosted by a relative, Nway Nway Htay and her family are entitled to the same level of assistance as those living in camps. UNHCR ensures this by having them registered as members of a nearby IDP camp. A coalition of humanitarian agencies provide food and other support to the population on a regular basis. For its part, UNHCR distributes domestic items such as blankets, sleeping mats and mosquito nets to new arrivals as well as the rest of the registered population.

While relieved that her immediate material needs have been taken care of, Nway Nway Htay is worried about what lies ahead. Four months after their arrival in Myitkyina, the family has been unable to return to their village due to continued insecurity. Finances remain tight as they seek alternative means to make ends meet.

“My husband has left to work at a mine. It’s not a stable job and when fighting occurs nearby, he has to stop work and flee,” she said. “Restarting will not be easy. We’ve already lost one harvest and have to wait until the rainy season ends.”

Nway Nway Htay’s focus in the meantime remains on caring for her child. “My priority is my son. I want him to be strong and healthy before we return in case we ever have to run again.”