Myanmar junta’s confiscation of food, medicine leaves Kayah state residents at risk

Soldiers are aggressively patrolling checkpoints along major roadways for the goods.

Residents and internally displaced persons in Myanmar’s war-torn Kayah state are facing a humanitarian emergency as junta forces confiscate food and medicine at dozens of security checkpoints along major land routes in the southeastern state as fighting there intensifies, local sources said.  

Armed conflict between Myanmar troops and popular militia forces have displaced nearly half of the population of about 450,000 people in Kayah state, a hotbed of resistance to the ruling military regime, which seized power from the elected government two years ago, and has been placed under martial law.

Since May 2021, junta soldiers have heavily shelled residential areas they suspect of harboring resistance fighters, according to a February report issued by ethnic Karenni civil society organizations. The fighting has destroyed roughly 1,200 houses in 87 villages, and displaced 180,000 people, or 40% of the population.

Without adequate supplies of food and medicine, the IDPs, especially children and the elderly, are becoming malnourished and are suffering from subsequent health problems, such as diarrhea, residents and aid workers said.

Humanitarian groups no longer can provide food and medicine to displaced residents because of the junta’s confiscations at road checkpoints, said Helen, an aid worker.

“We can barely provide enough medicine for hospitals and clinics,” she said. “The problem is that no one can transport the supplies in this situation. The transportation is too difficult for us to receive them here.”

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, tried to provide emergency relief supplies to more than 25,000 IDPs in Loikaw and Demoso townships in early June 2022, but it failed to reach all of them because of aggressive security checkpoints and confiscations,  Banyar said.

Soldiers are stopping all cars and motorcycles passing through the nearly 40 checkpoints along central roads and intersections in the state, most of which are in the capital Loikaw, residents said. They are aggressively patrolling roads into and out of Demoso township and Pekon township in adjacent southern Shan state.

Junta forces have been checking vehicles transporting food staples, including rice, salt and cooking oil, at the checkpoints since they were set up in early 2022, said Banyar, director of the Karenni Human Rights Group.

“The junta’s strategic hills sit along the highway connecting us to the town of Taungoo on the west side of Demoso,” he told RFA. “The checkpoints are located on those strategic hills, and in Leiktho village. There is also one checkpoint between Leiktho and Yartho villages. Those are the major checkpoints that are heavily searched.”

Junta soldiers could be taking food, medicine and money that they suspect are going to local resistance forces, said El Ni, a displaced person from Demoso township. 

But instead, their actions are threatening the survival of the IDPs, he added.

“They block roads, assign more checkpoints and restrict the transportation of everything, with a security excuse of suspecting that the supplies are for the KNDF,” El Ni said, referring to the Karenni Nationalities Defense Force, a network of civilian resistance fighters, Karenni organizations and armed groups in Kayah state.

El Ni and other IDPs received donations of rice, oil, salt, beans, eggs and instant noodles in the years before the checkpoints, though afterward they were lucky if they got rice once a month, he said. 

“In that way, I think they are cutting the food and supplies for the IDPs in the state,” he said. “As we are IDPs, we cannot work. We have to rely on the donations of well-wishers for our survival. The junta’s cutting off of our donation supply lines is its way of killing us all.”

One female IDP who gave her name as Naw, said police at a checkpoint confiscated the money and food she had got in Pekon as she made her way back home.

“There is no safety here,” she told RFA. “[Soldiers at] security checkpoints search too strictly with no regard for civilians or IDPs. There is no rule of law either. They just do as they please in many situations.”

In the two years since the military coup, most IDP children have not received regular vaccinations, said an official from the Moebye Emergency Rescue Team.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, some children died due to lack of medicine and health care, he told RFA. 

About 20 ethnic Karenni children sheltering in an IDP camp in Pekon’s Buu Pyar village suffered from diarrhea in the second week of February, and one of them, a seven-month-old, died on Feb. 14 because of the lack of food and medicine, residents said. Two adults also came down with diarrhea.

RFA could not reach Aung Win Oo, junta spokesman and social affairs minister for Kayah state, for comment.

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