Mobilising affinity ties for humanitarianism at the war-torn China-Myanmar border

By Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho, National University of Singapore

idp-camp-at-china-myanmar-border

Figure 1. An IDP camp at the China-Myanmar border. Source: Author’s own, 2012.

A few days after Christmas 2016, a social media post caught my eye. It stated,

‘Dear Humanitarian Agencies, [the] IDPs regret to let you know that all the humanitarian assistance you provided […] has been abandoned again last night due to the offensive war of [the] Govt Military’.

The IDPs referred to internally displaced persons at the border of China and Myanmar, while the ‘Govt Military’ in question was the military arm of the Myanmar government.

On 8 November 2015, international news agencies had reported the landslide victory of the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi. It appeared to herald a new era of democracy in Myanmar. But the civilian government has no oversight over the military, which retains the right to a quarter of the seats in parliament, and power over key ministries to do with defence, home affairs and border affairs. As the Washington Post reports on 28 December 2016, fighting at the border areas of Myanmar has escalated as the Myanmar military intensifies its attacks on ethnic groups it considers insurgents.

The IDPs mentioned in the social media post were displaced from their homes in Kachin state (henceforth Kachin IDPs) as a result of armed conflict between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin state of northern Myanmar. The breakdown of a ceasefire agreement (1994-2011) between the two parties renewed a civil war in Kachin state. Regional newspapers such as The Irrawaddy provide fuller coverage of the hostilities happening in Kachin state, Myanmar.

IDPs who fled further north to the border area that Myanmar shares with China were barred from crossing the border into Chinese territory. This act of refusal in turn prevents the IDPs from being recognised as refugees who have crossed an international border and thereby entitled to protection under international law. For several years following the renewed conflict, local humanitarian workers faced challenges channelling humanitarian aid to the IDP camps at the China-Myanmar border. The remote location of camps at the border area meant the supplies could be delivered only via routes controlled by the military in Myanmar or the government in China.

However, both parties denied international humanitarian agencies access to the camps citing sovereignty reasons or concerns over the safety of international personnel in the conflict zone. Only in recent years has advocacy by humanitarian workers succeeded in pressuring the Myanmar military to provide safe passage for the international humanitarian agencies to assess the IDP camps and the needs of the IDPs. Even so, as the social media post above informs us, the humanitarian supplies remain at risk of being destroyed through ongoing conflict.

Considering these humanitarian challenges is an article published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers which examines the geographical and geopolitical constraints that deter international humanitarian assistance, yet provide opportunities to engage a different set of humanitarian actors at the China-Myanmar border.

The paper first argues that the Kachin IDPs are treated as surplus populations by the sovereign states in both Myanmar and China. Surplus populations come into existence when nation-states impose punitive measures that compromise the survivability of populations that are considered threatening to national sovereignty. Second, the paper examines how mobilising affinity ties enables Kachin humanitarian workers to leverage the citizenship resources of empathetic Chinese nationals across the China-Myanmar border for negotiating humanitarianism constraints.

Overall, the paper considers how physical and cognitive borders establish taxonomies of social difference but also provide opportunities for identifying connections and forging transversal dialogues (henceforth transversal webs of connections) to bridge people of different social positionings. The paper argues that transversal webs of connections engender affinity ties that can be mobilised towards nurturing empathetic identification and caring relationships in societies characterised by cultural diversity and social complexity. This approach provides a potential ethical stance and productive analytical lens for advancing wider migration and citizenship debates.

About the author: Elaine Lynn-Ee Ho is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at the National University of Singapore. Elaine’s current research interests include China-Myanmar borderland migrations, Chinese diaspora and transnationalism, Asian forced migration, and urban aspirations of new immigrants in China. 

books_icon  Ho, E. L-E. 2016 Mobilising affinity ties: Kachin internal displacement and the geographies of humanitarianism at the China–Myanmar border. Trans Inst Br Geogr. doi:10.1111/tran.12148

60-world2  Htusan E 2016 Kachin rebels see more Myanmar attacks, no hope for peace The Washington Post online Dec 28 2016

60-world2  The Irrawaddy http://www.irrawaddy.com/

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