In Kachin State, an Act of Kindness on Christmas

By Lawi Weng 27 December 2013

RANGOON — In a rare opportunity for indulgence, ethnic Kachin children were eager to enjoy sweet treats on Christmas day when a benefactor from Rangoon visited the temporary displacement camp where they spent the holiday.

“They chose the cakes instead of the blankets that I gave to them, even though the weather is so cold,” said Sann Bawk Rar, a Kachin fashion designer who traveled north from Burma’s biggest city to Kachin State this week, stopping at eight camps in Mansi Township and Mai Ja Yang town over the course of six days.

A majority of Kachin people are Christian, and this year an estimated 100,000 civilians in Kachin State spent the holiday in displacement camps, after fleeing from renewed fighting between the government army and Kachin armed groups since 2011. With clashes continuing this week, thousands more reportedly continued to flee their homes.

Sann Bawk Rar, 35, who was also displaced amid fighting in Kachin State as a child, says she visited the camps with three friends, including a well-known Kachin singer, to donate gifts and entertain the children. “We sang Christmas songs, played games and shared presents,” she told The Irrawaddy, adding that they also handed out religious pamphlets about Jesus.

Ten thousand children each received two hats, a pair of gloves and a pair of socks, she said, adding that her team offered 25 million kyats (US$25,000) worth of goods. The funding came from donations from Kachin people around the country and living abroad, she said.

A 17-year ceasefire agreement broke down between the government army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 2011, with fighting escalating dramatically in late December last year with air raids on Lajayang, near the KIA stronghold of Laiza.

Clashes have calmed but continued this year, after peace talks started between both sides in February. However, fighting was reported over the past week, as the government army launched an offensive at a frontline outpost in southern Kachin State on Christmas Eve.

The children in displacement camps have seen their studies interrupted.

“These children are going to be the future leaders, they will be our next generation. We should not abandon them like this,” Sann Bawk Rar said.

She said her team met with 1,800 new arrivals at a displacement camp in Nam Lim Pa village, Mansi Township, where fighting has increased in recent months and clashes occurred Christmas Eve. “The people just arrived there one month ago,” she said of a nearby camp. “It is very cold there, and they have no shelter. They use blankets to cover up when they sleep, but with heavy snow the blankets get wet at night.”

About half of displaced civilians in Kachin State are staying in rebel-held areas, and while local Kachin aid groups have offered support, international aid organizations have had limited access to their camps.