MYITKYINA, Myanmar (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations has expressed concern about hundreds of people in Myanmar, including children, who are trapped in a conflict zone in northern Kachin state where clashes broke out again between the army and rebels.
The U.N. statement came as aid workers raised fears about the impact of winter on tens of thousands of people displaced by conflict in Kachin, living in flimsy camps.
The United Nations called for an end to fighting in Mansi township, which erupted just 12 days after Myanmar's government and the Kachin Independent Organisation, the political arm of the insurgent Kachin Independence Army (KIA), signed their latest peace deal on Oct 10.
The United Nations also asked for permission to travel to the conflict area where food supplies are running out, to provide humanitarian assistance.
"I am seriously concerned about the civilians being caught in any cross-fire, especially children and the elderly," Ashok Nigam, U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, said in a statement released on Friday.
Under the Oct. peace deal, the two sides agreed to reduce fighting, establish committee to monitor the conflict and open the way for the voluntary return of the displaced. Fighting between the two sides flared up in June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire broke down over long-standing grievances.
Sporadic clashes continue to force people to flee their homes, local aid agencies say.
The government, which took power in March 2011, has put peace with ethnic armed groups as one of its priorities. About a third of Myanmar's 60 million people belong to ethnic minorities and many resent what they see as domination by the majority Burman community.
But the ongoing conflict in Kachin has raised questions about the government's commitment to peace and its ability to reign in the powerful army after decades of civil conflicts and a iron-fisted military rule.
The conflict has caused the displacement of 100,000 people. Almost half of them are scattered in camps along the Myanmar-China border in rebel-held territory across Kachin and northern Shan States - largely shut off from international aid agencies.
Local aid agencies struggling to reach the displaced have raised the alarm about tens of thousands of people spending their third winter in dire conditions.
They live in overcrowded and dilapidated shelters with limited access to water and sanitation. There are few, if any, job opportunities for those in isolated camps, forcing them to become reliant on aid, which is seldom enough to cover all their needs, local aid agencies say.
"We're worried about them spending another winter displaced, especially for those camps in border areas," said Lahi La Hka, senior programme manager for the Kachin Baptist Convention’s (KBC) emergency relief committee.
"In one camp, there's no more water as it's all turned into ice. There is no firewood either. They also need blankets and winter clothes," he added.
Efforts to step up assistance have been hurt by funding shortages. Most local aid agencies are funded by Kachin donors and international aid agencies and regularly face a funding crunch.
Less than half of the U.N.'s appeal - for $50.9 million to provide humanitarian assistance to 120,000 displaced people and host communities - is currently funded.
Others providing assistance have expressed concern about the psychological impact from prolonged displacement.
"It's been almost two and a half years that they've been away from their homes and separated from their families, and the children have not been able to go to school in a normal setting," Bishop Francis Daw Tang from the diocese of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin, told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Sai Sam Kham, head of the Metta Development Foundation, one of the largest non-governmental organisations in Myanmar, agreed. "The longer the displacement, the more hopeless they would come to feel," he said.
Metta has tried to set up schools in camps for the internally displaced in government and rebel-held areas, but in some instances donors refused to commit funds because it was not considered life-saving, Sai Sam Kham said.
"I had to tell (the donors) this is not just about education but also a protection measure and to give the children some sense of normalcy," he said.
"Secondary schools are rarer so there's nothing to do for children between 12 to 17 or 18. They're at risk of being trafficked, getting into drugs and other vices that would give them an escape route (from being displaced)," he added.