Human Rights

‘Too Many Lives Have Been Lost’: Humanitarian Seng Raw on Kachin War

By Lahpai Seng Raw 10 June 2015

An event commemorating the fourth anniversary of the Kachin War, organized by the Kachin Peace Network, was held at the Micasa Hotel in Rangoon on June 9, 2015.

The focus of the event was support and care of civilians displaced by the war, and invited guests were mainly representatives from various international aid agencies and embassies.

The keynote address delivered by Lahpai Seng Raw, co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and a 2013 Magsaysay awardee, is reproduced below in full.

Some of you might remember that when we gathered this time last year to commemorate the third anniversary of renewed fighting in the Kachin region, I concluded my address with an appeal that all of us do everything we can to avoid another anniversary of this terrible war. But here we are, yet again, pondering over the devastating effects of this protracted war, not just on the Kachins but on the nation as a whole as well.

To give you an update on the humanitarian situation of those displaced by the war—there are about 120,000 IDPs, living in deplorable conditions in 172 camps across Kachin and northern Shan States. The anxieties and challenges the IDPs face on a day-to-day basis continue unabated. In fact for some, the situation has become much worse.

Some have gone through multiple displacements, fleeing from one camp to another. Some who stayed close by to be able to go back and check on their homes, livestock and farms are in particular peril, as they are often caught in the crossfire of two warring armies.

Some 200 Namlin Pa residents, led to believe that the NCA draft agreement was a ceasefire agreement, went home and nearly lost their lives in the bombing raids carried out by two army fighter jets in the area on May 20.

Some IDPs, no longer able to withstand the harsh conditions of camp life, have made the heart wrenching decision of giving up the homes and farms they left behind to accept relocation elsewhere at government designated sites.

As the war enters its fourth year, the fatigue factor is settling in with donors, social organizations and host communities who have been looking after them for so long. Currently, the threat of food shortage is very real in IDP camps, as their daily food ration of MMK 400 per person has been reduced to a mere MMK 200 (about US 20 cents).

At borderland camps, there are about 15,000 children of school-going age with limited access to schools and other education opportunities. This year they face special difficulties as UNICEF and local aid organizations are no longer able to provide them with text books and other school materials as in previous years. Moreover, it has been four years that children from KIO [Kachin Independence Organization] schools have been barred from sitting for government university entrance exams. As a result, the higher education dreams of 1,430 IDP children have all but evaporated.

This kind of education wastage is causing the socio-economic gap between Central Myanmar [Burma] and the Kachin area to grow even wider. Perhaps it is a deliberate attempt to degrade Kachin ability to administer their own land, just as the tacit policy of allowing an unchecked flow of drugs is ruining Kachin lives.

Also, in the course of this four year war, the lives of those who remain behind are as much in danger as those who flee. Egregious rights abuses are being committed against civilians with impunity, and Kachin women in particular, have become increasingly vulnerable as targets of rape and sexual abuse.

How can we forget the horrendous rape and murder of the two young Kachin volunteer teachers Maran Lu Ra and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, that so shocked the sensibilities of Kachins and non-Kachins alike. It has been six months since, but the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.

Then there is the recent case of a soldier caught red-handed trying to rape and murder Nhkum Lu, a 72 year old woman, home alone, recuperating from a stroke. Demonstrations have been held to bring the culprit soldier to be brought to justice in a civilian court, but instead of that happening, the demonstration organizers were called in for questioning by the police as a means of intimidation.

This kind of unchecked and unpunished rights violations and the conspicuous lack of an independent judiciary is holding back national peace and development. We should bear in mind that building trust is not just between opposing armed groups but between the government and its citizens as well.

According to the 2014 UN census report, Kachin State is the only region in the country where men outnumber women. This causes one to wonder whether it indicates that Kachin women are increasingly becoming human traffic victims to China, or if the male population growth is due to the influx of migrant workers from lower Myanmar and China.

Whatever the case, the bottom line is that Kachins no longer dare live in their homeland anymore. This brings to mind the term “systematic weakening” that genocide scholar Daniel Feierstein uses to describe the genocidal stage prior to annihilation.

Political and social scientist Susan George has also warned us: “There is no degree of human suffering which, in and of itself, will cause policies to change.”

This is directed not only at the Myanmar government but donor governments and agencies as well. Humanitarian organizations are reminded that their mandate is to respond to emergencies, to serve people’s needs. If they cannot fulfill this mission, there is a need to seriously consider how and whether they can transform, to serve a need that is at the heart of their creation. The 120,000 Kachin displaced people urgently need protection and food security now—at a time of war—when they are not able to support themselves.

It seems the NCA is as eagerly anticipated by IDPs wanting to go home, as international mining enterprises itching to jump in and do business. The notion that funds for IDP resettlement can only be allotted after the signing of the NCA—as if humanitarian emergency aid could not be provided during the time of displacement, or even when provided, channeled through the central government which is a party to the conflict—to my mind, makes the humanitarian policy of the international community not that much different from the self-serving interests of foreign mining companies.

The core political issue at stake is ethnic aspirations for a true democratic form of government that is federal in structure, as envisioned in the historic Panglong Agreement of 1947. But it is crucial to realize that resolving this core issue needs to go in tandem with addressing basic rights issues such as land grabs, human trafficking, education rights, etc. Furthermore, elimination of landmines and resettling refugees and IDPs should be tackled at the same time as more lasting political solutions are being sought. These issues cannot wait to be dealt with until “there is peace, stability and an inclusive government.”

And my position is that the only way to achieve this kind of political transformation is through unified opposition. That is to say, all of us who yearn for peace and democracy need to unite behind this vision, and let it become our common goal. Otherwise, lasting peace in Myanmar will remain as elusive as ever, and the cycle of war, displacement, violence, and poverty will go on.

This is where the critical role of local NGOs and CSOs comes in. Civil Society must work with the government, while also involving itself with efforts to get constitutional changes, improving education standards, promoting human rights issues, and nurturing future leaders. It needs to mobilize citizens to raise their voices, as civilian leadership is crucial in tackling issues that would lead to genuine peace and security and mitigate the suffering of ordinary citizens. CSOs must also take the immediate step of pressuring the government to renounce the ideology of war as a sovereign right of the nation, and the threat or use of it as a means of settling internal disputes, while negotiating a nationwide ceasefire accord with ethnic armed groups.

I strongly believe that having a unified opposition and civil society participation in governance is a prerequisite for peace, security and a representative government.  All ethnic nationals within the Union must come together to resolve the root causes that led to the present conflict, so that a just and lasting peace might be achieved.

One positive outcome of the four years of war is that CSOs have emerged stronger and become more united. It is encouraging to see Bamar CSOs developing a better understanding of the struggle of ethnic minorities, and that only through addressing ethnic grievances can a true democratic, civilian government emerge.

Too many lives have been lost, too many resources wasted as a result of this war. Therefore, as I did last year, I again urge all citizens, national and ethnic leaders to come together to find ways in which people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds can live together in harmony so that there will be genuine and lasting peace in our land. Unity is strength, so I know that as long as we remain united we shall overcome!

My heartfelt thanks to the Kachin Peace Network and its leadership for organizing this event, and all of you who are here to show your care and concerns for the plight of the displaced Kachin.

This keynote speech was delivered in Rangoon and first published by Kachinland News on June 9, 2015.