Local UN volunteers ‘abandoned’ in evacuation from besieged Karenni State capital

A long-term paid volunteer with the UN’s food assistance agency says he was forced to flee the military’s bombing of Loikaw on his own after realising he was not included in his employer’s exit plan

After United Nations (UN) staff evacuated the Karenni State capital of Loikaw last month amid escalating fighting, a long-term local volunteer with its food assistance agency said that he and others like him were left behind. 

A 23-year-old local man who had distributed rice for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Loikaw as a paid volunteer for nearly a year told Myanmar Now that he was “not informed” of or included in his agency’s mid-November exit plan and was instead forced to flee on his own to a temporary camp with his family.

When contacted by Myanmar Now last week, WFP’s in-country office would not elaborate on the evacuation. 

“We cannot disclose details on transportation and other arrangements associated with the temporary relocation: making such information public could jeopardise the safety and security of our team and partners and possible future relocations to other areas,” the agency said. 

However, the UN’s movements were made public in a November 18 statement by the National Unity Government (NUG) and the Interim Executive Council (IEC) of Karenni State after a humanitarian convoy of more than 30 vehicles had already arrived in the neighbouring Shan State capital of Taunggyi, some 90 miles to the north.  

The statement claimed resistance forces had “paused the offensive attacks on the Karenni frontline in order to safely evacuate 228 employees and family members of United Nations organisations and non-governmental international organisations” from Loikaw. 

The move came as the military bombarded the town and the surrounding area with indiscriminate artillery fire and airstrikes that killed more than 60 civilians in the first three weeks of November, according to the Karenni Civil Society Network (KCSN), which provides regular humanitarian updates on the region. During this time, allied resistance forces captured at least 10 regime bases, including in Loikaw, considered the military’s last stronghold in Karenni State. The most significant seizure was arguably Loikaw University by the Karenni Nationalities Defence Force on November 15, previously occupied by two light infantry battalions among which were reportedly 100 casualties. 

More than 92,000 people in total, or around 80 percent of Loikaw Township’s residents, have been displaced by the junta’s attacks on the capital, KCSN said.

The WFP volunteer was among them, speaking to Myanmar Now from a camp for more than 20 internally displaced families in a location he asked not be disclosed for security reasons. 

CAPTION: Children line up to receive food in a temporary IDP camp in Demoso Township, outside Loikaw, in Karenni State on October 22 (Myo Satt Hla Thaw / AFP)

Children line up to receive food in a temporary IDP camp in Demoso Township, outside Loikaw, in Karenni State on October 22 (Myo Satt Hla Thaw / AFP)

“Military aircraft are always hovering around, and we don’t know when the next airstrike will be. Battles could break out at any time,” he explained. “There is absolutely no security at all… the military fires gunshots at anything they see, so the displaced people have to stay in hiding.” 

Describing feeling “abandoned” by his employer, he had to reach the site on his own, he said. The WFP had categorised him as a volunteer, but he received daily compensation of 25,000 kyat (less than US$12) for his work, which averaged to around 10 days every month since January. 

At the time of reporting, he said he was “now jobless.”

“Only the NGO and UN staff members are eligible for the evacuation programs. Volunteers like us were never informed about those programs,” he said. “There were two staff members that led us during our work but their guidance was limited only to work: they couldn’t do anything about evacuating us.” 

“I think all the staff got to evacuate, but the majority of the volunteers didn’t,” he told Myanmar Now. “Isn’t the UN supposed to help the people and not themselves?”

He said he believed there were around 60 others like him, divided into three groups of 20, their fates not known at the time of reporting. He noted that these volunteers were local Karenni people, but that the WFP staff stationed in Loikaw—and who were given the opportunity to officially and safely evacuate—were from elsewhere across Myanmar, and largely from the Bamar ethnic majority.

“The UN is supposed to maintain peace and security. In this real civil war, they left so fast,” he continued. “They did not share all of the information [about their exit] with their volunteers, who are ethnic Karenni people. I don’t think it is fair to me, and to us.” 

WFP’s Myanmar office confirmed that it partners nationwide with “community members, volunteers, local organisations, and transporters to efficiently store, move and distribute food assistance,” and that the agency typically pays daily stipends in exchange for labour. 

“We remain committed to doing everything we can, as far as the existing UN rules and regulations allow, to support our partners in difficult times like this, while continuing our mission to assist those who need it most,” the agency told Myanmar Now, claiming that it was “exploring every available avenue to re-establish safe access” to the city. 

WFP Myanmar refused to comment further on the allegation from local volunteers in Loikaw that the agency had abandoned them.

The UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator’s Office in Myanmar did not respond to Myanmar Now’s requests for comment clarifying which agencies were active in Loikaw, the protocol surrounding their November evacuation, or the questions raised by local volunteers regarding exclusion from this process. 

Chris Gunness, director of the UK-based Myanmar Accountability Project (MAP), said that the allegations by the WFP volunteer had “eroded further the UN’s credibility among Myanmar people.” 

“MAP calls on the UN to launch an immediate and transparent investigation to get to the bottom of which officials were responsible for the decision to abandon local volunteers,” he told Myanmar Now, also calling for a “thorough review of the UN’s policies” affecting these individuals. 

“The UN must make clear recommendations to ensure that this never happens again,” Gunness said. 

Until last month, WFP said it had provided monthly food and nutrition assistance for up to 80,000 people affected by conflict in and around Loikaw; local civil society groups estimate that there are more than 280,000 people displaced in total throughout Karenni State and southern Shan State. 

UN operations in Myanmar have repeatedly come under criticism from rights advocates and civil society organisations for carrying out aid operations under the oversight of the junta, which does not allow access to large populations of displaced people seeking refuge outside of urban areas under military control. 

In its statement on the evacuation, the NUG and Karenni IEC urged international organisations including UN agencies to “implement cross-border aid programs” in order to address the humanitarian crisis in Karenni State. 

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