“…there are areas that have become completely inaccessible, which also puts aid workers at risk. If IDPs who are cut off from aid are unable to return their villages to get food, their food security could become a concern. And eventually there could be shortages.– Naung, Pa-O Women’s Union

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Caption – Some IDPs hide in fields and farms in southern Shan State

An interview with Naung, an official from the Pa-O Women’s Union, about how IDPs in southern Shan State are coping with food and shelter and where they are staying

Fighting between the Pa-O National Liberation Army (PNLA) and the military council forces has been going on for more than two months in Hopong, Hsihseng and Loilem Townships in southern Shan State.

As a result of these armed clashes, the number of IDPs who have been forced to flee their homes and possessions has risen is gradually approaching hundreds of thousands.

The Shan News conducted this interview with Naung, an official of the Pa-O Women’s Union, about how IDPs in southern Shan State are coping with their food and shelter needs and where they are staying.

Q: Where are the IDPs in southern Shan State hiding? How are they getting food?

A: The situation of IDPs varies greatly. Some are living in IDP camps, others have rented rooms in towns. Some are living in religious or public buildings such as monasteries or schools. Some are hiding on their own farms or fields, which are not very far from the combat zones. Many others are hiding in the jungle or in caves near their villages.

The living conditions of IDPs vary depending on how they fled and where they seek shelter. They face different difficulties. Some pregnant women even had to give birth in the jungle while they were on the run. In such a situation, they face different difficulties depending on where they are. For some elderly people who have been displaced into the jungle, it is difficult to receive medical care. And the recent rains have made life very difficult for IDPs in terms of shelters.

Q: Among these different areas, are there certain regions where IDPs face greater difficulties?

A: In general, IDPs face similar difficulties. However, those living in areas further away from towns or villages face greater problems with food and shelter. Those living in IDP camps usually receive more help from civil society groups, charity groups and collective donations from towns or villages. However, for those hiding in the remote forests, their locations are not known. So they receive no aid. They only have supplies like rice, oil, salt or medicine that they took with them on their flight.

The displaced people in the jungle are mainly concentrated in areas like Hsihseng and Pinlaung. When we try to get data on IDPs in these areas, it is extremely difficult to estimate their numbers. We only have access to information on those who are in IDP camps, in towns, villages or religious buildings. But for the people scattered in the jungle, we can’t get population figures. They are the hardest for us to reach and face the greatest difficulties.

Q: How do you provide health care for the people in the jungle that you can reach?

A: At the moment it is difficult for us to provide health services to the displaced people in the jungle. And we are not an organization that focuses primarily on medical aid. But for pregnant and expectant women or those with children under one year old, we do provide some support in the form of expenses, food or shelter. However, for those who have been displaced, especially in remote jungle, we can only help if we have information about their whereabouts. As we do not know their exact location, it is very difficult to help them.

Q: You mentioned that some women have had to give birth and that there are also pregnant women who have been displaced by the conflict. What circumstances are they facing now?

A: Their situations are different. Those we can reach, for example in religious buildings, schools or clinics, are in a different situation. But some are living in the open, others in makeshift huts. Most of the displaced people living in the jungle have to cut wood and build their own makeshift huts. Those living in IDP camps have bedding, while others sleep on the bare ground. The IDPs hiding in the jungle face the greatest hardships in terms of food, shelter, and medical care. Any aid that reaches them is very limited compared to others. The plight of IDPs therefore varies depending on their location.

Q: How do displaced pregnant women in the jungle usually give birth?

A: Some experienced mothers know how to do it themselves. Others give birth with the help of others in the jungle. There have also been cases where the delivery did not go smoothly and they had to rush to the nearest clinic or hospital. Others had originally planned to deliver in a clinic or hospital, but when they went into labour, there were no clinics or hospitals accessible. So they had to move to other places. Many even had to travel to Taunggyi to give birth there. Many had no choice but to give birth all by themselves.

Q: Were there any cases where mothers or babies were seriously harmed or even lost their lives due to these births in the jungle?

A: This is something our organization is trying to inquire about. We should not expose either the mother or the baby to such life-threatening circumstances after birth. That’s why we give the pregnant women our phone numbers in advance. We tell them to contact us if they need help. For some of the mothers we were able to reach, we found that the babies were delivered but they had no food or adequate shelter. In such cases, we provided as much as we could.

We can’t say with certainty that there have been no serious injuries or deaths of mothers and babies in these circumstances. As some women had to give birth while fleeing the clashes, there is a high risk of harm to mother and child. The likelihood of psychological trauma from giving birth in the midst of active conflict is also very high. Such scenarios are therefore entirely plausible. But we have not been able to document such cases.

Q: Given the ongoing fighting, are there any organizations or individuals who have access to the IDPs and can help them?

A: At the moment it is extremely difficult to reach areas like Hseseng to provide assistance. Some groups can only get as far as Hsaik Hkawng village before they have to turn back due to security concerns. International humanitarian aid to southern Shan remains very limited compared to other regions. There is some small-scale aid provided by local civil society groups, but it is negligible. It is mostly self-help efforts by the communities.

Q: What could be the consequences for IDPs if they are trapped in the midst of ongoing fighting and access to aid is restricted?

A: If the conflict situation continues to deteriorate, it will be even more difficult for any aid to reach IDPs in the jungle. While some groups are still doing their best to deliver what little they can, there are areas that have become completely inaccessible, which also puts aid workers at risk. If IDPs who are cut off from aid are unable to return their villages to get food, their food security could become a concern. And eventually there could be shortages.

Some may even risk their lives trying to sneak back to their villages to get food out of desperation. There have been many tragic cases in the past where civilians have been injured or killed by artillery while trying to get supplies. So there is a high risk that the number of casualties will increase if people are forced to take these drastic measures in order to survive. Not only would they face hardship due to the lack of food, but trying to find food could cost them their lives due to injuries.

Q: What else would you like to add?

A: The most important point is that the situation of IDPs in southern Shan State has been an ongoing issue for many years. Their numbers have increased after the intensification of the armed conflict in Karenni State in 2023. With the public also facing economic hardships, the community’s sporadic self-help efforts to support IDPs are unsustainable. But we simply do not have the capacity to provide this kind of assistance. Greater humanitarian assistance to IDPs is urgently needed.

Sent by Shan News.

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