As fierce fighting rages between Myanmar’s army and ethnic Kachin rebels, tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes have become trapped, with conflict on one side and an unsympathetic China on the other.
On the surface, daily life seems to carry on almost as normal in the rebel stronghold town of Laisa, near Myanmar’s border with China in the far north.
But the relentless thud of artillery fire – often for hours at a time – provides a near-constant reminder of a bloody conflict that has torn through the area since a 17-year ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) shattered last June.
Deadly clashes prompted thousands of civilians to seek refuge in camps, cut off from their homes and unable to work their land.
Many months later, their lot has not improved.
“We lived peacefully before. But we got scared when others began to leave,” 26-year-old Kham Mai told AFP, standing with her baby strapped to her back between the makeshift bamboo dormitories that house hundreds of families at the Je Yang camp near Laisa, where she arrived last year.
Estimates of the number of internally displaced people within Kachin state vary from 75,000, according to the United Nations, to over 100,000 according to Kachin sources.
Most are in KIA-controlled territory, wedged between the combat zone and China – which last month controversially evicted thousands of ethnic Kachin refugees, forcing them back over the border and into the unrest.
“They were sent back into a very difficult situation,” said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
“It is still the rainy season there, there is inadequate food, inadequate potable water, inadequate shelter,” he said. “It is quite clear that the government is still blocking humanitarian assistance to KIA-controlled areas.”
It is an accusation also levelled by the rebels.
The government believes “that when nothing is left to eat, the Kachin will surrender”, said Colonel James Lum Dau, the Thailand-based deputy foreign affairs chief for the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the KIA’s political wing.
“That is the reason why no one is allowed to go in and help.”
Despite government ceasefires with a number of other major ethnic rebel groups across the country – and an order for the fighting to stop from reformist President Thein Sein as long ago as December – Lum Dau said there has been no let-up in the conflict.
“There is no change, except they sent more troops to Kachin state,” he said.
Civil war has gripped parts of Myanmar since independence from British colonial rule in 1948, with many of the country’s ethnic minority groups demanding varying levels of autonomy.
The Kachin accuse the government of pushing dialogue only on the basis of ceasefires and troop withdrawals, neglecting to address long-standing demands for greater political rights. Talks between the two sides have so far proved fruitless.
“I think the government is not ready to go to the next step which requires transparency,” Major general Gum Maw, KIA’s deputy commander-in-chief, told AFP in Laisa.
A Myanmar minister recently admitted talks with the Kachin were more difficult than with other groups, citing the relative swiftness of eliciting an agreement with Karen rebels, whose rebellion is the world’s longest-running civil war.
“When we talked with the Karen, we started from zero. But with the Kachin, we started from minus four… Now we can say we’re at minus one, close to zero,” the official told AFP in Naypyidaw.
President Thein Sein said in New York this week that the two sides are “working to further strengthen confidence building measures”.
Until that can be achieved, it’s the civilians who are bearing the brunt of the war.
Inside the camps it is hard to miss the signs emblazoned with the red-and-blue “UK Aid” logo of the British government’s Department for International Development (DFID).
With a new GBP 2 million ($3.2 million) budget this year, DFID has been able to provide food, water, shelter and medicine to some 27,500 people, largely in border camps not controlled by the government – and only with the help of local aid groups.
“Access for international agencies to these areas has been difficult,” said a western source with knowledge of the situation.
Health and sanitation issues are of particular concern.
“The refugees mostly suffer from diarrhoea and malaria. They also suffer from hepatitis and malnutrition,” said Doi Pyi Sa, chair of the rebel-run relief committee for refugees, although he said there was “enough medicine for the moment”.
In this remote region, far away from television cameras and the eyes of the world, the plight of Kachin’s displaced people risks being forgotten, said Robertson.
“The situation is extremely desperate now,” and is slowly spiralling downwards, he said.
“How bad do things need to get before you call it a disaster?”