Sunday, August 20, 2017

For Kachin IDPs, going home is impossible ‘without lasting peace’

Even though internally displaced person (IDP) camps in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army have not yet faced ration cuts, there is concern about potential food shortages in the event that local and international donors reduce funding.

[This is the second installment in a two-part Special Report. Read the first installment here]

A woman stands in the doorway of her makeshift home in an IDP camp in Kachin State. Photos: Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesA woman stands in the doorway of her makeshift home in an IDP camp in Kachin State. Photos: Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

Je Yang, one of the biggest camps in Laiza, with 8780 IDPs, can provide residents with rice, oil and beans. But one-third found jobs just over the Chinese border after camp authorities stopped paying the monthly K7000 supplement.

“Both men and women work illegally on the other side of the border, across the creek, because it’s not easy to get a passport. They can earn good money, but sometimes the Chinese authorities arrest them,” said camp leader Naw Sai.

Men arrested in China for illegal immigration can be sent to prison. But women face the risk of being illegally trafficked. Tempted by the prospect of freedom from hunger and insecurity, many young women see entry into China as the way to a better life. But they are deceived.

Hka Tawng, head of the local women’s affairs committee, said, “Recently one young woman came back to the camp. She had been sold for marriage to a Chinese man for 25,000 yuan [K23 million, or US$19,000] when she was 14 years old. After suffering daily beatings from her husband and family members, she returned to the camp with her young son. But she was then forced for lack of money to return to China to work.”

The camp’s women’s protection group has arranged sewing training programs for young women to earn income within the country. But camp leaders say more such situations are likely to arise if rations are cut.

People who have been living in IDP camps face several difficulties – lack of food, shelter, health and education – for many years. Their prospects are bleak, and no date can be set for their return home. But they are aware that the way back to their villages can only come through the establishment of genuine peace between the government and the KIA.

Kachin State is rich in natural resources such as gold, jade and other precious stones, as well as significant teakwood forests. The state was among the most fertile regions of the country before it turned into a battleground – particularly since a 17-year ceasefire established in 1994 broke down in June 2011.

Formal peace talks between the government and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), for which the KIA serves as the military arm, resumed in November 2011 in Ruili, China. Negotiations have been ongoing ever since, but the KIO declined to sign last October’s “nationwide” ceasefire agreement.

The conflict has been perpetuated by the lack of trust on both sides. The fighting taking place today is the result of many years of failed political negotiations.

“Going home is impossible without genuine peace. The lives of thousands of people are getting worse as both sides put their own interests first, not caring what is best for the people,” said U Zaw Gum, leader of the Bung Long camp in Namkham township, Shan State.

A boy plays with a toy gun in N’Khaung Pa IDP camp.A boy plays with a toy gun in N’Khaung Pa IDP camp.

Displaced people in government-controlled areas say they received no help from the previous government, and politicians never even visited their camps except during the election campaign.

“Then all the parties came and told us they would help get us home if they won. We haven’t seen them again since the election,” said U Zaw Gum.

Many people living in the camps, having little or no confidence in the previous government’s peace process, voted for the National League for Democracy in the hope that party leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi could bring genuine peace by establishing a federal system.

“We voted for her, but we haven’t seen any particular improvement in our condition on the part of the government so far. We had a significant shortfall in aid funding in 2015, and we expect things to get worse, but no NLD representative has come to our camps yet. They don’t seem very interested in our troubles,” said U Zaw Gum.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the NLD does and how much it will take into account the views of the various ethnic groups when adopting their policies,” he added.

The NLD has not yet revealed its plans for the IDPs in conflict zones. Last month, representatives of the Joint Strategy Team, which is made up of NGOs, met in Nay Pyi Taw with Relief and Resettlement Minister U Win Myat Aye.

“We explained the difficulties IDPs face in the conflict zones and suggested what could be done to sustain their lives under secure conditions. They were willing to help us and to cooperate with our activities,” said Daw Mary Tawn, director of Wunpawng Ningthoi (WPN), founded by Kachin-based churches, community-based committees and local NGOs at the KIA-controlled border town Mai Ja Yang in June 2011, in order to respond to the needs of Kachin people affected by the war.

KIO officials are optimistic about the new government’s peace process and hope the NLD can deal with the military to build a federal union based on the outcome of a political dialogue. The KIO refrained from signing the nationwide ceasefire agreement, but they are willing to discuss political dialogue with the NLD government. The KIO has formed a new committee with 10 high-ranking officials to pursue discussions.

“We want talks with the government, but they must lead to all-inclusive political dialogue as a means of establishing a genuine federal system. We don’t want any group to be left behind,” said General Ji Nawng, head of the KIO’s Eastern Division. He said all the problems, including IDP issues, could be addressed automatically in a future political deal between the government and ethnic armed forces.

“I assume there are many issues the government needs to resolve. Peace is a very sensitive issue for them. That’s why we should give the NLD the time to find a solution. It’s not easy to get a genuine peace overnight after 60 years of fighting,” he added.

As chair of the KIO’s IDP and Refugee Relief Committee, he said the KIO was capable of taking care of IDPs living in its zones even if international donors cut their rations.

“We can also support them with funding from individual donors. If the international donors cut their assistance, the KIO will have to try to get more funding. It’s not a big problem for us. We could supply enough food for them to survive, if not much more,” said Gen Ji Nawng.

The KIO says it is keen to negotiate with the government on a peace deal. On the other hand, many IDPs have lost hope of returning to their homes after years of uncertainty. Most IDPs in KIA-controlled areas are unaware of last year’s election, as voting did not take place in those regions. When the IDPs were asked about the new NLD government and the name of the current president, most could not answer. They have heard of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but seem to place little hope in her. Getting enough food to survive is a more pressing issue.

“We’ve gone so long without meat. We eat mostly beans and rice provided by the camp,” said Phaw Ran Lu Kyi at Je Yang camp. “I would like my baby to eat nutrients like pork and beef more often, but I have no money to buy them.”

[This is the second installment in a two-part Special Report. Read the first installment here]