MYITKYINA — Burma’s historic elections are near and could herald great changes for the country, but this comes as news to Taw Mi. She has just arrived at Maina camp with her sick husband and young son after a hazardous four-day journey from Laiza to the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina.
When conflict between government forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) erupted in Burma’s north in 2011, Taw Mi’s family sought refuge in camps in rebel-controlled areas near Laiza, where some 60,000 displaced civilians live cut off from UN support, government services and the Nov. 8 polls.
“In the KIA camps, there is no voting. I didn’t know about the elections until I came here,” she said during an interview in September in Maina camp, where more than 400 families live in rows of UN-built bamboo longhouses on a hill near Myitkyina.
Taw Mi, 45, travelled illegally out of Burma and through China and back into in mountainous northern Kachin State to be reunited with three of her children who live with a sister in Myitkyina. “I didn’t see them for three years, I only met them again yesterday. It was sad,” she said, looking exhausted and dejected.
Even though she arrived more than a month before the polls, Taw Mi will not be able to vote as internally displaced people in government-controlled camps need to prove they have lived in a constituency for more than 180 days—just like regular internal migrants.
Most of the approximately 40,000 people in the camps have lived here for several years and can use camp family registration forms as official identification to get on voter lists, according to aid workers. Yet their participation is far from certain as IDPs’ interest and knowledge of the polls varies widely.
“We expect at least 70 percent of the IDPs to vote, but it differs from camp to camp,” said Father Noel Naw Lat, a Kachin priest with Catholic aid group Karuna, which manages 54 camps. “Some organizations (running the camps) have no interest or trust in the elections, so they don’t motivate IDPs to vote. If the organization that supports the camps are interested, then the IDPs in that camp will be interested.”
‘They Only Want to Go Home’
Among 40 government-controlled camps in Myitkyina District, where most camps are located, some 5,000 IDPs are registered to vote, said district election sub-commission chairman Myat Khaing. Kachin State sub-commission chair Maung Maung Khun could not be reached for state level figures.
Maina camp manager Khong Dan said he listed 800 residents with the local election sub-commission, but noted that among families in Maina and three other Kachin Baptist Convention-supported camps in the area there was little interest in voting.
“They openly say they’re not interested because after the 2010 elections the war began,” he said, referring to the general elections that were considered rigged by the former junta and ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party. “They don’t trust the government. They only want to go home. ”
That will not be likely any time soon. Fighting in Kachin and Shan states has flared up recently and IDP numbers continue to rise after the KIA and other major rebel groups rejected the government’s conditions for a “nationwide” ceasefire. The Oct. 15 deal only included the Karen National Union and seven other armed groups.
In recent weeks, polls in two townships and 450 village tracts in conflict-affected parts of northern and eastern Myanmar were cancelled by the Union Election Commission. The decision angered some ethnic parties who believed the security situation was acceptable in some areas where they could have won seats.
According to Khong Dan, only the Kachin-led parties, such as Manam Tu Jha’s Kachin State Democracy Party (KSDP), have attracted some interest among IDPs.
Kachin Baptist Convention spokesman Rev. Lama Yaw said his organization had banned political campaigning in the 74 camps it manages. “We are not interested in the elections, we don’t trust our government and don’t believe in change,” he said.
Voter Education Falls Short
Manam Tu Jha, a former KIA deputy leader who founded the KSDP in 2010, thinks otherwise and is confident of the support of the Kachin population, including the IDPs.
“The majority of the people have an interest in the elections, but how many are going to vote I don’t know, because they might be worried about security,” he said, adding that fighting would reduce voter turnout among ethnic rural communities where his party has support.
The KSDP is contesting 55 state legislature seats and several national parliament seats on campaign promises that it would seek greater autonomy for the roughly 1.5 million ethnic Kachin through the creation of a federal union. It also wants greater access to revenues from rich local resources, such as jade and timber.
They openly say they’re not interested because after the 2010 elections the war began.”
Under Burma’s military-drafted constitution, the central government maintains most executive powers over states and regions, such as the mandate to directly appoint the state and region chief ministers.
Brang Mai, CEO of Myitkyina Journal, said the KSDP was the most popular party, though it would likely have to split votes with the National League for Democracy whose chances were greatly boosted by Aung San Suu Kyi’s four-day visit to Kachin State in September.
Father Noel of Karuna said, however, that information on the importance of polls remained low among the Kachin population, including the IDPs.
“The voter education work has been small—a drop in the bucket compared to humanitarian work,” said Father Noel, adding that influential religious leaders of the predominantly Christian Kachin organizations were responsible for this decision.
“Our leaders are still affected by the experiences of brutalities done by the military in the past. So they are still afraid,” he said. “They can’t differentiate between civil empowerment and politics—civil empowerment shouldn’t cause problems, politics could.”
This feature originally appeared on Myanmar Now.