Refugees from Myanmar's embattled northern state of Kachin are suffering from a lack of humanitarian aid in China's Yunnan Province, according to a Tuesday report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Between 7,000 and 10,000 Kachin refugees have fled to Yunnan in hopes of escaping violent conflicts in Myanmar, according to the report. Now, they suffer a dire lack of resources. At refugee camps, access to food, water and shelter is limited. Living in relative isolation, it is difficult for the migrants to find a source of income; those who do work are often exploited by their employers.
China has not fulfilled obligations to provide humanitarian assistance, said Sophie Richardson, the China director at HRW.
Parents from Kachin have little or no access to schools or day care for their children. Women are vulnerable to abuse. Men report being forced to undergo invasive drug tests; those who allegedly test positive are heavily fined, or else sent to so-called rehabilitation centers where they encounter mistreatment and forced labor.
It goes beyond refusing to allocate the necessary resources; China has also neglected to support international humanitarian groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), even denying them access outright.
If China cannot give adequate assistance, it should allow international groups like the [United Nations] High Commissioner for Refugees to enter into the country to provide it, said Richardson.
For now, local aid organizations based in Kachin have provided the most assistance. For the refugees, it's not enough.
Forced to Flee
At the root of the problem is the conflict that erupted in Kachin last year between insurgent groups -- the most prominent of which is the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) -- and the Myanmar government.
Antagonism between the two sides has existed for more than half a century; the KIA was originally formed in 1961, and Kachin has operated with partial autonomy punctuated by periodic clashes with the armed forces of the Myanmar government, which is now based in the capital city of Naypyidaw. The deeply-entrenched conflict is exacerbated by ethnic differences.
Both parties operated under an uneasy truce for 17 years, until conflicts broke out in 2011 over the construction of the Dapein Dam in southern Kachin. Insurgent groups protested the project, arguing that it was planned by the central government without consideration for the surrounding environment and its residents.
This was the spark that ignited the long-simmering tensions in Kachin, provoking violence that led to the exodus of tens of thousands of residents into other Myanmar states, as well as to the neighboring Yunnan province in China.
As the principal investor and intended recipient of hydropower from this controversial dam, China was not a bystander in this conflict -- and this complicates the situation of the refugees today. The underlying discord between Chinese interests and the concerns of Kachin residents provides necessary context for the situation of the struggling refugees in Yunnan province.
Antagonists by Proxy
China is Myanmar's largest foreign investor; it is the driving force behind many new infrastructure projects in the country. These projects -- which include dams, mines, and a new port for oil tankers -- tend to involve the extraction of energy resources from Myanmar. China gains power; Naypyidaw gains revenue.
So the Myanmar government and its army, the Tatmadaw, are major beneficiaries of Chinese investments -- and the Tatmadaw has a long history of conflict with Kachin insurgent groups. China's presence in Kachin, therefore, is seen by many residents as an affront. The antagonism tends to intensify wherever Chinese projects are under construction.
The conflict at Dapein, for instance, is now being mirrored by a similar project upriver-- the Myitsone Dam in Kachin is one of China's biggest current initiatives.
The dam, which is slated for completion by 2019, will be installed where the Mali and N'Mai rivers converge to form the Irrawaddy, Myanmar's largest and most commercially important waterway. The electricity generated for China by the Myitsone Dam is expected to reach 6,000 megawatts per year.
Insurgent groups were caught in the middle of this exchange. The KIA is resisting the project because it is expected to result in flooding that will displace thousands of people, endanger local wildlife, and submerge a site of cultural and historical importance. In 2010, a spate of bombs at the construction site reflected strong local opposition. This same fervor fueled the clashes over Dapien, which eventually led to the influx of refugees into Yunnan.
Protests in Kachin did succeed momentarily.
Last September, violence led to the proclaimed suspension of construction at Myitsone. This announcement by Myanmar President Thein Sein was welcomed by many Kachin residents -- unfortunately for them; it seems to have gone unheeded. Today, China Power Investment Corporation, the company behind the project, continues to ship laborers and supplies to the worksite.
A Changing Myanmar
Although construction continues, Thein Sein's declaration was a telling indication of changing times in Myanmar. It seemed to demonstrate a new willingness to address the concerns of Kachin's indigenous groups, even at the expense of China.
That the announcement was ignored shows that Chinese capital still holds considerable sway in the country, but other sources of income may change that in the future. The recent easing of sanctions by the U.S. and other Western powers could open up Myanmar to new economic alliances. India is also emerging as a potential new partner.
This all goes hand-in-hand with the developing political situation in Naypyidaw. Myanmar is slowly liberalizing under President Sein, a process that accelerated when recent parliamentary elections resulted in a sweeping victory for the National League for Democracy, the formerly suppressed opposition group now led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Though a military junta still holds significant power over the government, the election marked a milestone in Myanmar's democratization.
Suu Kyi and her many supporters are working for greater political transparency and market openness. Myanmar has been the subject of renewed international attention and praise in recent months, especially since Suu Kyi herself recently embarked on her first international tour after decades of detainment in Myanmar.
But if this is a true transformation, it has only just begun. Conflicts in Kachin, and the resulting migrations that lead to human rights violations in China, show that opposition movements in Myanmar still face unjust oppression.
Where the Heart Is
As long as the conflicts continue in Kachin, the refugees are compelled to remain in Yunnan for their own safety. For now, the longstanding issues of contention remain far from resolution.
Recent statements from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, seem to suggest otherwise.
After the clashes abated, [the Kachin people] went back to Myanmar. While there, China provided help to them on humanitarian considerations, said Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei to reporters on Tuesday.
The suggestion that the clashes have abated is tenuous; it is contradicted by the ongoing tensions surrounding the Myitsone Dam and other controversial projects in Kachin. And as for Hong's statement about continued humanitarian assistance from China, Richardson isn't so sure.
I find it difficult to understand what he is specifically referring to; we're not aware of any assistance to these people she said. Our resources repeatedly told us they had not received any assistance from the [Chinese] government.
She added that China does deserve credit for accepting the refugees in the first place, especially considering the diplomatic ramifications of harboring citizens from a state whose residents are so often in conflict with the central Myanmar government, China's economic ally.
But acceptance alone isn't enough. In light of its findings, HRW recommends that China implement better infrastructure and resources for refugees, stop sending migrants back into a conflict zone, and allow non-governmental organizations to provide necessary aid if China cannot do so on its own.
Such measures needn't be in place forever; Richardson emphasized that China is not dealing with refugees who seek a permanent escape.
They are not looking for resettlement in China, she said. They want to go home once the conflict is resolved.
To that end, China has a major role to play as the mediator in talks between Naypyidaw and Kachin insurgent groups like the KIA. Humanitarian assistance for refugees in Yunnan is an immediate concern that cannot be ignored, but stability in Myanmar is the ultimate goal.