Friday, August 24, 2012

China Forcing Repatriation of Ethnic Refugees From Myanmar

The authorities in southwest China are forcibly evicting thousands of encamped ethnic Kachin refugees from neighboring Myanmar who fled a renewed civil war, pushing them back into the conflict zone in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, according to foreign human rights researchers, political observers and two people in Kachin State.

The forced repatriation appears to be happening in large waves this week. The refugees had fled to China after a 17-year cease-fire agreement between the Kachin Independence Army and the Myanmar government broke down in June 2011. The civil war with the Kachin is one of many occurring in Myanmar, and the renewal of the Kachin conflict has cast doubts on the sincerity or ability of President Thein Sein to carry out deep political reforms.

A researcher for Human Rights Watch said the repatriations appeared to have begun en masse on Tuesday. He estimated that 1,000 refugees had returned to Kachin State and a total of 4,000 are projected to return by the end of the week.

In June, Human Rights Watch reported that 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin refugees were in China, subjected to squalid conditions and harsh treatment by officials. It also said there had been had been some instances of forced repatriation by Chinese officials, though apparently not as systematic or widespread as now.

“All the refugees in China now are being pushed back,” said one resident of Laiza, the capital of the rebel-held part of Kachin State. “Many of them are back already.”

On Wednesday, he added, Chinese border guards expelled a group of refugees at an area called Nong Tau and destroyed refugee huts even before the refugees had left the site.

Ryan Roco, a human rights researcher who has documented the refugee crisis, said he had learned that at least 4,200 Kachin were being forced out of six camps in China’s Yunnan Province. He said the process, begun in mid-August, appeared to have intensified since Tuesday. A further 700 were living with family or friends in Yunnan after being forced from the camps, he said. Those who have returned to Kachin State were living in on both sides of the conflict zone. Part of Kachin State is controlled by the Kachin Independence Army, though the rebel group has lost significant territory since the civil war restarted.

“The actions of the Chinese against vulnerable Kachin demonstrate a wanton disregard for human dignity and international humanitarian law,” Mr. Roco said.

Officials in Yunnan and Beijing had been tolerating the presence of the Kachin refugees for more than one year, though Yunnan officials had been threatening to evict the refugees. It is not clear why the refugees are being expelled now. An employee at the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the ministry had no immediate comment after it was sent a list of questions on Thursday. Calls to the Yunnan propaganda office went unanswered, as did calls to the propaganda office of Dehong Autonomous Prefecture, the location of the camps.

One foreign researcher who also confirmed the repatriation efforts said that about six weeks ago, a number of Chinese foundations had made donations to Kachin religious groups to assist internally displaced people. The Kachin are Christians, and Chinese religious organizations and some other aid groups have been allowed by local Chinese officials to help refugees and internally displaced Kachin. But some foreign observers have criticized China for not allowing the United Nations access to the border camps.

China has not taken an official position on the Kachin conflict. Kachin State is rich in jade, timber, mineral wealth and water resources, all coveted by the Chinese. Several large Chinese dam projects in the region, including the controversial Myitsone Dam, had inspired local protests. China is also a major patron of the Myanmar government, though many Myanmar citizens are wary or hostile toward growing Chinese influence.

On Monday, the Irrawaddy, a newspaper based in Thailand that reports on Myanmar, said Chinese officials had pressured the Kachin Independence Organization, the civilian counterpart to the Kachin Independence Army, to accept 4,000 refugees back in Kachin State.-The New York Times (August 23, 2012)

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