Views from the Front Lines

Ethnic conflict remains an elusive issue, with the human reality of human rights abuses and conflict often remaining in the jungles of Southeast Asia and rarely making it to the international eye. Last night though at George Washington University in DC, a group of experts, who have worked extensively at Burma’s front lines, presented important and often unseen information.

Mahn Mahn, the Director of the Back Pack Health Workers Team, spoke about the existing health crisis in Eastern Burma. The Back Pack Health Worker Team (BPHWT)is an independent, nonprofit, multi-ethnic organization dedicated to providing primary health care to ethnic groups and vulnerable populations in armed conflict and rural areas of Burma, where access to healthcare is otherwise unavailable. To accomplish its mission, BPHWT utilizes mobile health teams to provide a range of primary medical care, maternal and child health services, and community health education and prevention programs to internally displaced and vulnerable populations in Burma. Despite the best efforts at safety, the work done by the BPHWT is dangerous. Since the inception of the program, seven backpack
medics and one traditional birth attendant have been killed as a result of landmines or by SPDC soldiers

There are 600,000 people chronically displaced in Eastern Burma, fleeing the ongoing militarization and conflict. Moreover, with international organizations not allowed into these areas – there exists a chronic humanitarian crisis worse than any other in Asia. Indicators collected in IDP areas of Eastern Burma bear more resemblance to other areas facing humanitarian disasters, such as Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or Angola, than those reported officially by the Burmese government to international organizations such as UNICEF.

When BPHWT did a survey of the health situation in Eastern Burma they found a strong relation between human rights abuses and poor health. They found that within the year prior, almost a third of households had suffered from forced labor, almost 10% forced displacement, and a quarter had had their food confiscated or destroyed. Approximately one out of every fifty households had suffered violence at the hands of soldiers, and one out of 140 households had a member injured by a landmine within the prior year alone.

This has translated into health problems:

– Families forced to flee within the preceding twelve months were 2.4 times more likely to have a child (under age 5) die than those who had not been forcibly displaced. Households forced to flee also were 3.1 times as likely
to have malnourished children compared to those in more stable situations.

– Children of these households were 4.4 times as likely to suffer from malnutrition compared to households whose food supply had not been compromised.

– As many as one in 12 women will die from pregnancy-related complications.

– Malaria continues to be the single most commonly diagnosed reason for death, with overall 12.4% of the IDP population at any time infected with malaria.

Mahn Mahn and Thart Kler from the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, spoke of how this humanitarian crisis has not changed, and in some ways has gotten worse.

Also spoked last night was Ryan Libre, a photojournalist who has spent significant time in Northern Burma with the Kachin Independence Organization. The Kachin refused to disarm and join Burma’s central army, and since June there has been renewed ongoing conflict in Northern Burma. The Kachin are grossly outnumbered, but are still fighting to protect their rights.

Photo from Ryan Libre

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