By ALEC SCOTT, FLORA BAWI MAWI & LIAN BAWI THANG| Tuesday, August 11, 2015 |
RANGOON — Remote Paletwa Township in southwestern Chin State has been one of the hardest hit and most underreported jurisdictions of Burma’s four states and divisions declared disaster zones on July 31, with supply shortages and mass displacement going largely unaddressed in the government’s response to the flooding crisis of recent weeks.
Since late July, the township’s main supply routes have been severed by extreme flooding along the Kaladan River, preventing most waterborne traffic between Kyauktaw in Arakan State and Paletwa town, the township’s main distribution center. The road at the town of Ann in eastern Arakan State, a major trade gateway between Sittwe, Kyauktaw and the rest of eastern Burma, has been blocked by landslides, further isolating Paletwa, which is heavily reliant on trade passing through Kyauktaw. The cumulative impact of these severed linkages has been to render Paletwa Township one of the most inaccessible areas affected by the flooding, which has killed at least 99 people nationwide since mid-July.
In Paletwa Township, the Khumi Media Group reported last week that a total of 880 households from 22 villages had been affected during the floods, including five schools and three bridges. According to the Paletwa Township Flood Victim Committee, information arriving from 15 more villages in the township as of Saturday had brought the number of households affected by the floods to 973—roughly 5,000 people—while two more schools, two religious buildings and two additional bridges are reported to have been damaged. These figures, accounting for just 37 out of 385 villages in the township, are likely to rise as more information from the hard-hit jurisdiction filters out.
In Paletwa town, a total of 247 households, comprising a quarter of all households, have been inundated by the Kaladan River’s swollen waters, which have reportedly reached several meters above normal levels, while landslides are reported to have damaged or destroyed 14 homes.
According to a Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) field worker based in Paletwa, although there has been no rain in the town since early last week, monsoon season storms farther north have meant floodwaters continue to rise in the township. The Kaladan River enters Chin State from the state of Mizoram in northeast India. Its watershed area has borne a heavy load from Cyclone Komen, which brought torrential rains to the region late last month, including major tributaries in Thantlang and Falam townships. Much of this water will flow through Paletwa as the deluge slowly drains into the Bay of Bengal.
Although Paletwa has been recognized as being among the worst hit townships in the country, neither the Burmese government nor international aid groups have prioritized the township in their disaster response. While destruction wrought by landslides in the Chin State capital Hakha has drawn much attention, responses to the situation Paletwa have been relatively muted. The scale of the damage and the struggles of many of Paletwa’s residents, totaling 97,593 people according to last year’s census, remain largely unknown and unseen.
The plight of 356 ethnic Khumi Chin villagers displaced by armed conflict in late March is also unknown. The villagers, half of whom are children, had sought temporary shelter in Laung Tin village after armed clashes between the government and Arakan Army troops forced them from their village at Pyin So.
Local Relief Effort
In response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis, three locally initiated committees have been established to raise awareness among aid organizations that may support the coordination of relief in Paletwa. However, as only a trickle of relief aid from INGOs and UN agencies has thus far reached Paletwa, the committees have themselves taken up the role of humanitarian relief workers.
“People in Paletwa Township need urgent humanitarian assistance. Therefore, the Chin State government should allow INGOs and UN agencies to freely operate humanitarian assistance in Paletwa Township without any negotiation needed with the government,” urged the chief communications officer from the Paletwa Township Flood Victim Committee, who asked that his name be withheld.
On Tuesday, he confirmed that 1,400 sacks of rice arrived in Kyauktaw the day prior, delivered by a coalition relief team from the UN World Food Program and local NGO Myanmar Enhancement to Empower Tribals (MEET). A portion of that aid reached Paletwa on Tuesday morning.
In Paletwa town, more than 1,000 residents are taking refuge at local schoolhouses, churches and monasteries. For the moment the displaced residents of Paletwa are surviving on daily donations from the local community. Residents displaced from communities outside of the town had not yet made it to the township’s capital as of Tuesday.
‘Business as Usual Will Not Do’
“How will the government respond?” asked Dr. Sui Khar, a joint secretary general of the ethnic armed group Chin National Font (CNF), during an emergency press conference held in Rangoon on Wednesday.
“Business as usual will not do,” he added, referring to successive Burmese governments’ neglect of western Chin State.
The message was clear: The government would be judged on the superficiality or substance of its response to the ongoing disaster.
On July 29, the General Administration Department in Paletwa town instituted a four-day ban on boat drivers and traders operating on the Kaladan River, citing safety concerns. Since the prohibition was lifted, larger trading vessels known as “line boats” and smaller motorized canoes have been able to access Kyauktaw, where prices for basic goods are reported to have markedly increased, with rice brokers trading one sack for 30,000 kyats (US$24) 35,000 kyats, while the cost of eggs has doubled.
Paletwa is the poorest township in Burma’s most impoverished state. Approximately 80 percent of the population lives in rural areas, with the vast majority relying on smallholder farms for their livelihoods. Villagers whose farmlands and riverside gardens have been inundated or washed away by the floodwaters now face both short- and long-term crises due to loss of valuable crops, degradation of farmland and the struggle to mobilize resources supporting a sustainable recovery.
Paletwa is also the most isolated township in the state—so isolated that until April this year, it was not connected by road to Chin State’s neighboring townships of Matupi and Kanpetlet, with all major traffic running through Arakan State. Thousands of people in Paletwa are believed to be running out of basic supplies such as food, clothing and potable water, and have either limited or no access to shelter and proper sanitation.
Lack of Transparency Amid Muddy Waters
On Saturday morning, the chief commander of the Western Regional Command, Hla Myint, and the Arakan State Chief Minister Maung Maung Ohn arrived by helicopter in Paletwa town. During their 30-minute stay, they are each reported to have donated 7.5 million kyats (US$6,800) worth of food to the General Administration Department.
A CHRO field worker in Paletwa who requested anonymity alluded to the concerns felt in affected communities regarding a lack of government transparency. “The government hasn’t provided any information about what is happening. … We do not know how the government will handle those displaced households whose houses have been washed out with the Kaladan River.”
It is not only houses and crops that have been washed away: A resident in Paletwa interviewed by phone reported that at least two people are known to have drowned in separate incidents near the villages of Oah Ta Lin Wa and Nga Dat.
“Any information regarding what has happened and where, and what kind of arrangements for displaced peoples will be made, what kind of assistance will be provided and how . . . by the township administrative department is not heard. We only heard that they are collecting information,” explained a nun who wished to remain anonymous. “We are afraid to go out from Paletwa and it’s the same for people from other villages to come here because of the torrential Kaladan River.”
At the packed press conference in Rangoon last week, the CNF’s Sui Khar spoke to the heart of the issue: “If I was asked what the main challenge was for the peace process, I would say the lack of trust between the government and armed groups. Therefore, we can start building trust with the government through addressing the disaster together.”
The authors are members of the Rangoon-based Chin Human Rights Organization.