Mission Paletwa: Reflections of a Chin Journalist on a Humanitarian Mission
By Salai Ngun San Aung
The Chin people are stuck between a rock and a hard place as troop build-ups from both sides have only come to escalate the fighting (between the Burma Army and Arakan Army).Salai Ngun San Aung
Serving as a base of the military operation for Rakhine insurgency and a battleground on which the Arakan Army (AA) and Myanmar Tatmadaw have fought for the last five years now, Paletwa is no stranger to violence and the resulting scars of war for the thousands of innocent civilians who call the conflict-ridden remote region their only home. The place has seen entire communities being forcibly displaced, their livelihood deprived and their fundamental way of life turned upside down. Literally, for the past five years, a high number of the population has gone mobile and been on the move in search of safety and sanctuary outside of their habitual places of residence and traditional realms of existence.
Hundreds of families, mostly from the Bawm community, have abandoned their villages and traveled as far up north as Thantlang Township for shelter from years of abuses, while several thousand more have sought sanctuaries in makeshift camps in larger towns such as Sami and Paletwa. At least 3000 Chins are reported to be internally displaced in Minbya Township of Rakhine State.
The only silver lining to the miseries and pain that have come to define life for the people in Paletwa Township is that the tragedies have become a uniting force and a source of national solidarity from the Chin people outside of the Township, who now have the privilege of living in relative peace since 2012 when the Chin armed group Chin National Front and the central Burmese government signed a ceasefire agreement. But the central civilian government’s response to the situation in Paletwa has been woefully inadequate, and far from satisfactory, not to mention the fact that much of the violence and deaths of civilians especially during the past two months have been inflicted by Tatmadaw’s indiscriminate airstrikes. This is also true with the State government, which also has its own set of limitations in responding to the needs of victims of war.
NGOs and faith-based organizations have been quick in filling the gaps left open by the government’s inaction. Active involvement of international organizations such as the World Food Program (WFP) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), albeit limited, serves to boost morale, to say the least. Chin community-based organizations and local NGOs, have in their various own ways, been providing vital supports through small-scale aid distribution and advocacy initiatives to highlight the situation. A recent statement, endorsed by 139 organizations from around the world, has called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire to allow safe humanitarian passage. Local groups are providing basic medical supplies such as medicines, sanitary, and hygiene products in the internally displaced peoples (IDPs) camps.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to be embedded as part of a small volunteer group that traveled to Sami Town to personally observe the situation in Sami IDPs camp.
A ride towards Sami IDPs camp with members of Hakha youth
It all begins with a timely initiative taken by Hakha Youth for a community fund-raising drive. The door-to-door collection of donations over a period of two weeks totaled up to over 200,000,000 Kyats (About 15,000 USD) and eight bags of worn clothing. A four-member-group of Hakha Youth, including a youth pastor, Pastor Hniar Hlun, from Amarillo Chin Christian Church, USA set out from Hakha at 7:30 am (on April 9), and headed down south for IDPs’ camp in Sami to deliver the charitable contributions from residents of Hakha Town.
Little did I expect such a bumpy road trip would prove to be a rather enjoyable and smooth ride. We reached Matupi town early in the evening and spent the night at Grace Guesthouse. Our good friend, Ei Ei, from Matupi, set everything ready for us beforehand. It is a must to submit a written report detailing the aid inventory to the General Administration Department (GAD) in order for us to get official permission for carrying the aid delivery package from Matupi to Sami. And our team leader, Salai Tluangte worked on it. We communicated with Pu Thang Yen, the man in charge of the CNF Liaison Office in Matupi town, to inform him of our journey to Sami. Acting on our behalf, he secured a green light from his local Burmese counterparts, who gave the nod to our mission.
On the morning of April 10, we met at breakfast with Saya Jolly Aung, who works at a humanitarian aid group called People Hope. He stressed the importance and urgency of aid delivery. From his point of view, giving cash to the IDPs is unrealistic, but purchasing basic needs in advance and distributing them directly to the IDPs is a more practical approach. Taking his advice, our emergency meeting agrees on building 100 latrines at IDP camps in Sami. Necessary materials such as wood planks, blue plastic sheets, plastic containers, mug, etc. (100 pieces per each item) were bought in Matupi town. As it turned out, we need to ask Saya Jolly Aung’s help as all these merchandises did not fit in our car.
Our journey resumed at noon (12:16 pm) on April 10 from Matupi towards Sami along with the aid groups from Yangon, led by Saya U Saw Mya. Our car broke down at a steep slope, a mere 10 miles away from our destination point. Our attempts to push a fully-loaded car out of the slope proved futile. It was only after a 12-wheeler truck behind us took all the loads off our car that we were able to continue our journey.
I wrote in my diary, noting “Of all my road trip experiences, this roadway is in the poorest condition”. We finally reached our destination at 8:30 pm. The distance from Hakha to Matupi is 173 miles and from Matupi to Sami is 96 miles. In Sami, there were seven aid groups in total, coming from Yangon, Taunggyi, Kalay, Falam, Matupi, Mindat, and Hakha respectively. It might be a stressful and tiring moment for some leaders of Sami, who prepared foods and accommodations for all these aid groups. Although our initial plan was to devote only two nights (including travel time) in Sami, we ended up spending six whole nights and reached Hakha back at 3:00 am on April 16.
Delivering aid to the IDPs
While donating aid to the IDPs, it is very important to deliver the cash or gift at the hands of the receivers themselves. Aid accepted at GAD office/Response Committee often doesn’t get distributed for the person for whom it was intended. It might be due to limited human resources to manage the distribution. Hence, if you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to deliver the donations directly in the hands of the IDPs themselves, it is essential for all aid groups to ensure that they insist on seeing the center/office entrusted with the distribution. Before distributing 8 sacks of worn-clothes and 300 rolls of mat, we informed Sami’ GAD office of our arrival, saying that we prefer to deliver the items directly to IDPs ourselves. The GAD office approved our request. However, the GAD office has no record or documentation of who has or has not received the aid. It is with the help of Hope Organization’s documentation that the donations are correspondingly distributed. The remaining are left at the GAD office with a request to provide them to newcomers (if any). Items for latrine construction (such as blue plastic sheets, plastic containers, wood planks, etc.,) were kept at the GAD office and at Hope Organization’s office.
Concerns of Sami residents
Sami town, which only recently obtained sub-township status, is in Paletwa Township. The town has a low population density with only a few numbers of household. Subsequently, it faces many difficulties in hosting more than 3,000 people in such a small rural town. Children make up the largest demographic among the displaced persons. Hence, health/wellbeing and education for these children naturally becomes the main concern. Another issue of great concern is adults’ mental health, such psychological problems associated with being solitude and jobless, which often leads to excessive alcohol consumption and gambling.
It is learnt that handing out cash usually produces negative consequences and therefore delivery of basic needs material items is more helpful. In my conversation with an elderly man at the town, he shared with me a recent incident in which a young native Sami Town resident accidentally knocked over an IDP boy with his bike. In response, around 20 adult members of the IDP community came out with “knives in their hands.” He said the community cannot guarantee against that kind of problem from re-occurring in the future. The man was asking for advice on how to deal with those kinds of incidents. Being there for a short period of time, only for a few days, we (ad hoc aid workers) are obviously unqualified or ill-equipped to offer any meaningful help with those kinds of situations. It is the government that needs to address such a concern and provide a secure environment for people as it is a law and order issue.
A meeting with a youth pastor
I unexpectedly met a Chin Christian University’ alumnus, a theology student who spent time studying in Hakha at the private institution, who now serves as a pastor at one of the Sami villages. He desperately said, “We continuously [wrongly] assumed that the CNF would come to our rescue and address our fears and concerns, and yet, we haven’t seen anything coming from them”. As the conversation went deeper, a pastor from our team told this youth pastor about how a group of Bawm community from Paletwa Township had migrated and settled in Tikir of Thantlang Township. Our friend asked him “Why don’t you come to the northern side and settle there?”, to which the youth pastor replied, “That is exactly what the Rakhine wants. Once we leave our villages, they’ll almost instantly occupy them all. And Paletwa will fall under Rakhine’s hands”. In fact, his response raises as many questions as it stirs up emotions.
Conversation with a man who lost all of his sons
The whole Watma villagers fled as a result of Tatmadaw airstrikes at 3 pm on March 16 (Sunday), causing the deaths of 10 civilians. I met a man who lost his three sons in this military attacks. He had 3 sons, 3 daughters, and a grandchild. He recalled, “At 3 pm on the evening of March 16, the Tatmadaw fighter jets bombed the village, and all my sons lost their lives. My daughter and I got severely injured and were rushed to the hospital. Fate gave me no luck to see their bodies even for the last time.” Six other civilians were killed from another village. It is stated that all the young people fled the village and went in hiding, and the dead bodies were left with the elderly people. When I asked him about his feelings, he said, “I feel empty and numb, I don’t know what to say”.
Many people share the same experience of losing their children right in front of their eyes. To date, there has been no financial assistance or consolation from the government, much less taking responsibility for the bombings. The state counselor issued a rather puzzling and unusual statement of late, but many people were extremely displeased when they discovered that what seems like a statement of condolences and comfort at the beginning turn into words of praise for the army for having served dutifully. Glancing over to the other side, I saw three children who lost their parents in the airstrikes. They fled the village accompanied by their 70-year old grandma. Trying to divert my sight, I couldn’t help but seeing six young widows.
Where do we go from here?
As Arakan Army Chief Gen. Tun Myat Naing asserts, it is Arakan’s dream to establish an autonomous Arakan State in the year 2020. What this exactly means in terms of the AA’s ultimate political ambition remains a mystery to most people. Some suggest the AA is aspiring to something beyond a federal arrangement subscribed to by most ethnic armed groups – something more along the lines of the Wa Autonomous Region model, which effectively operates as a semi-independent polity. But what astonishes most observers is how quickly the AA has transformed itself into such a fighting machine in just a span of one decade. Not strange to the Chin people in Paletwa Township is how consistently badly the AA soldiers have behaved with the local villagers in the last five years that they have occupied the Chin territory and used it as a base to wage war against the Burmese army. It would be naive to think that such behaviors against their host are caused by a few bad apples. Various well-documented patterns of abuses go to show how the AA are not just using Paletwa as a geographically strategic base as their leaders have said in public, but how their soldiers have asserted a territorial claim to Paletwa with the local Chin population, says it all. The kidnapping and detention of Chin MP from the area for 78 days by the AA could only be described as a deliberate attempt to humiliate the Chin people. At least a dozen innocent civilians remain unaccounted for after they were arrested by the AA soldiers at various points in the last two years.
Meanwhile, the Chin people are stuck between a rock and a hard place as troop build-ups from both sides have only come to escalate the fighting. Accompanying this escalation in violence is the surge in civilian deaths, displacements, and loss of livelihood in an area that was already the poorest region in Chin State even before the conflict began in 2015. The advent of COVID-19 and the real likelihood of the disease spreading among the displaced communities is extremely concerning. With monsoon season just around the corner, an outbreak of COVID-19 in cramped-up camps would bring a humanitarian crisis of unimaginable proportions. There are already existing concerns over the lack of proper sanitation, lack of access to nutritious food, and the spread of other common contagious diseases such as seasonal flu, dysentery, malaria, etc. This scenario will see many more deaths that will only be imaginable in our worst nightmare. As the central government’s response to the situation would likely remain ineffective or inadequate, the State government must assume greater responsibility by proactively working to mitigate the situation. They have a vital role to play here. Business as usual where instructions and orders from Naypyitaw are just waited out will not do the trick in this situation. The question now is where do we go from here?
We are presented with no choice but to move forward and confront reality as people. It is high time we all work together by contributing our resources, energy, skills, and intellect to a common purpose of protecting our people and our homeland from great harm before it is too late. Let us be awakened to act collectively and decisively.
Salai Ngun San Aung is a Chin journalist and former Editor-in-Charge at The Chinland Post. He is currently completing an M.A., in History at the University of Yangon, Myanmar. – Editor ([email protected])