Kachin Refugees Left in Limbo

By Francis Wade 6 June 2012

KACHIN STATE—N Hkawng Pa camp was built in a hurry, an overspill car park of sorts for the refugee communities of Kachin State that escalated fighting in recent months has pushed to peak capacity.

At the last count less than a week ago, nearly 1,600 people were calling this site three hours from Mai Ja Yang home. How long they’ll remain is anybody’s guess—many inhabitants complain of being in a tormenting state of limbo, unable to settle on this steep hillside yet aware they could be here indefinitely.

Their security remains a perennial concern—fighting broke out recently just three hours’ walk from here, as Burma’s newest frontline continues to edge closer to the Chinese border. People here are thus confined to the camp. “They know that if they leave they might come across a Burmese battalion,” says camp leader Pan Awng.

Those who do sporadically return to their villages are at risk of stepping on landmines left by the same Burmese troops that forced them to N Hkawng Pa. Some mines have a shelf life of up to a year, Pan Awng says, meaning that even if fighting does cease in the near future, many will be forced to remain here.

Just last week reports emerged of three civilians—two children and a man—who trod on landmines after being forced to act as porters for government troops. Eight villagers were conscripted from Chipwi Township on May 21 and compelled to show Burmese soldiers from Infantry Battalion 382 through the unforgiving jungle terrain.

A battle ensued when they encountered the Kachin Independence Army on May 25, and the unfortunate trio was injured while fleeing the area. They were discovered by the rebel group after fighting ceased and then transported across the nearby border to receive treatment at a Chinese hospital.

But for veterans of the Kachin theatre of conflict, this year has been easier than times of past. Maru Za Hkawng and Lahtaw Nang Doi, new arrivals in N Hkawng Pa, remember well the late 1970s, when the Kachin uprising was barely a decade old.

The itinerant existence they have lived over the past 40 years began in 1977 when Burmese troops torched their house. That happened again in 1991, but they say life is easier now than during the last era of fighting when help—in the form of aid workers and media—was nowhere to be seen.

“We prefer the camp to life before the [1994] ceasefire,” says Maru Za Hkawng, a 60-something farmer and self-professed forager. With a UN convoy arriving to deliver aid this week, he no longer needs to sweep the forest looking for food, as he and his wife were forced to do before being introduced to the notion of outside assistance.

For those new to this life, however, the present is less palatable. Around 75,000 civilians, including many women and children, have fled to temporary camps by the Sino-Burmese border since the 17-year ceasefire broke down last June.

Camp health workers fear for the children—although N Hkawng Pa’s infancy means it has not yet had the same problems with illness that have hit other camps, the rainy season is soon to arrive and the risk of disease heightens.

With the government’s refusal to allow regular international aid to the Kachin refugees, they have been forced to rely on local groups and even sympathetic Chinese, including a doctor who travels four hours from inland China to make the risky border crossing to N Hkawng Pa. Pan Awng says these lifelines are crucial, but whether they’ll last the duration of the conflict is a source of continual concern.