Bangkok, Thailand - Six months after fighting erupted between troops from Myanmar (also known as Burma) and ethnic Kachin separatists, international relief is finally trickling in for over 30,000 people who fled their homes near the snow-capped mountains north of the country.
The United Nations-led relief effort began distributing "essential household items" on December 13 in Laiza, a town deep in the mountainous terrain under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The convoy, which included two truckloads of aid, travelled along a road that the government troops and the KIA agreed would serve as a humanitarian corridor.
"This is the initial delivery of UN assistance to Laiza," Zafrin Chowdhury, spokesperson for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said from Rangoon. "The UN certainly hopes that additional relief supplies will be allowed to reach the most vulnerable people displaced in and around Laiza."
The "Blue Flags" are a lifeline for local Kachin aid workers, who struggled to distribute meagre rations of food and clothing to the refugees forced to live in forests and in rickety bamboo-shelters battered by harsh winter conditions.
Most of the relief work is being handled by the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political wing of the KIA.
"We can now feel hopeful for more international humanitarian assistance since we have been desperate for aid in the past months," La Rip, director of the Kachin Development Group (KDG), said during a telephone interview from Laiza. "Our appeals for international aid since June have been finally answered."
The access three UN agencies, including UNICEF, have got to an area close to the Chinese border is unprecedented. It follows the alarm bells rung by international and regional humanitarian and human rights groups about a looming humanitarian crisis.
"The Burmese army started this fight in early June. They violated a ceasefire agreement we had with the government since February 1994. They want to annihilate us, finish us by military force "
- Kachin rebel colonel
"It is a desperate picture out there," Lynn Yoshikawa of the Washington DC-based Refugees International told journalists in Bangkok last Friday following a two-week mission to an area in the Kachin state close to the fighting. "There is potential for a dire humanitarian crisis with the number of displaced growing and little aid available."
The plight of the victims was worsened by the politics of international aid after the quasi-civilian government of Myanmar, pushed through a policy of isolation to defeat the KIA.
Western governments were reluctant to channel aid directly to local relief groups like the KDG preferring UN agencies instead, according to a Rangoon-based diplomatic source.
Such cross-border assistance raised the touchy issue of sovereignty, given that relief would have to be channeled through China. "China is concerned about international assistance flowing into the Kachin State from its end," Yoshikawa said. "China has been permitting some aid to go through, but they don't want anything high-profile."
Displacement and conflict
But it is not a new story in Burma. The nearly 500,000 other victims displaced by decades of conflict in ethnic areas close to the Thai-Burma border have also been deprived relief from Western governments and international humanitarian agencies if UN agencies are not present to channel funds.
The current round of fighting has undermined the reformist image being cultivated by Burmese President Thein Sein, who took power in March and has ushered in a raft of policies aimed at ending the nearly 50 years of military dictatorship. While the Thein Sein administration has sought peace deals with three other ethnic separatists in the country, it has turned its guns on the Kachins.
"The Burmese army started this fight in early June. They violated a ceasefire agreement we had with the government since February 1994," Colonel James Lum Dau, the KIO's deputy chief of foreign affairs, said. "They want to annihilate us, finish us by military force."
And even though Thein Sein issued an order Monday for the Burmese military to stop fighting the KIA, the "tatmadaw", as the Burmese army is known, is still on the offensive. "The fighting has not stopped. We can hear gunfire and explosions," confirmed La Rip of KDG.
The latest battle in a protracted conflict going back to 1961 is rooted in the 2010 push by the last Burmese junta to get the four armed ethnic forces to serve under the military as border guards. The KIA refused and was subsequently described as "outlaws" by senior general Than Shwe, who preceded Thein Sein.
The last round of fighting has left in its wake a disturbing picture of human rights violations. The Burmese military is being accused by international and Kachin human rights groups of gross abuse against civilians.
"Between June and September, the Burmese troops looted food from civilians, fired indiscriminately into villages, threatened villagers with attacks and used civilians as porters and human minesweepers," revealed the United States-based Physicians for Human Rights in a report released late November.
The Kachin Women's Association has accused the Burmese military of unleashing a policy for soldiers to systematically rape women and girls since fighting began, according to an early December report. It echoes similar disturbing accounts of Burmese soldiers targeting women from other ethnic communities, such as the Shan and the Karen, during clashes over the past decade.
To avoid further attacks, the refugees are heading towards the Chinese border, said John Salin, a freelance Burmese video cameraman, who has just returned from the frontline. "They believe the Burmese troops will not attack them if they are near the Chinese border."
A version of this article was first published on IPS.