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More than a thousand miners and their family members, who were caught in the crossfire between government forces and Kachin rebels, have now been allowed to leave and travel by foot or boat to Tanai town where they can safely seek shelter.
“More than 3,400 people had been trapped at the gold and amber mines in Tanai Township as armed conflict raged around them,” said local MP Zaw Win, speaking yesterday. “However, on Monday, the Burmese army officers freed 800 women, and the following day about 400 men were allowed to leave. Perhaps more have been able to flee the mines since then.”
Earlier this week, two Tanai MPs submitted a petition to the speaker of the upper house of parliament, calling for government action to protect those civilians who had been caught in the no-man’s land as the Burmese army launched assaults, including airstrikes, against Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions. The gold and amber mines in the area were, until now, under KIA control.
Government forces announced on 28 January that it has seized a KIA military outpost and customs gate close to the mines.
At least four civilians were killed during the fighting between Burmese armed forces and the KIA on 19-27 January.
Meanwhile, as the miners and their families began arriving in Tanai, reports emerged of food and water shortages at the mines, and accusations that Burmese soldiers forced the families to act as “human shields”.
Dr. Awng Lan, the deputy secretary of Kachin Baptist Convention, said, “Some of the trapped miners called us last night. They informed us that they and their families had been detained by Burmese troops, who used them as human shields when they patrolled in columns. The miners said they were terrified of stepping on landmines as they were marched towards KIA positions.”
Awng Lan said he was told that the miners were separated into groups based on their ethnicities and that they had their phones confiscated.
Miners and their family members have also been caught in in the crossfire at the Namkwan gold mine. Relaying messages by telephone to relief personnel in Tanai, the miners have described severe food and water shortages at the site.
Naw Tawng, a spokesperson for the rescue committee established by churches in Tanai, said that some 800 women and children had been allowed to leave the mine, but an estimated 2,000 men are still trapped there under Burmese army supervision.
“Rations of food are running out and they have no access to fresh water,” said Naw Tawng. “Some of the miners have already fallen ill.”
Several families said they were permitted to leave the area of conflict by waterways.
“We walked to Namkwan jetty and took a boat to Tanai,” said a woman who had been evacuated from Namkwan mine. “We each had to pay 15,000 kyat (US$11) for the journey.”
Naw Tawng said that those hundreds of mostly women and children who had succeeded in making their way to Tanai are now being provided with makeshift shelter and humanitarian rations.
In a statement released on Tuesday, an alliance of ethnic Kachin political parties called for the Burmese military to engage in talks rather than launching offensives in the region.
The Kachin Political Cooperation Committee (KPCC) said, “Since the beginning of the year, the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] have been greatly expanding their presence and launching airstrikes at the gold and amber mines in Tanai Hukawng and Sumprabom Township under the pretext of clearance operations and the preservation of natural resources. These attacks have compelled scores of civilians to flee in fear of their lives.
“ … For the sake of building a genuine federal union, the KPCC sincerely urges the Tatmadaw to engage in political dialogue rather than launch offensives.”
The KPCC comprises the Kachin Democratic Party (KDP), the Lhaovo National Unity and Development Party (LNUDP), and the Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP).
Additional reporting by Paing Soe