Kachin IDPs Face Hunger and Homelessness Amid Recent Conflict

By Lawi Weng 14 June 2017

TANAI TOWNSHIP, Kachin State — Three days ago, Steven Naw Ring, 35, and his family fled their home in the mining village of Nan Kon in Tanai Township, Kachin State.

Fighting had broken out between the Myanmar Army, also known as the Tatmadaw, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), forcing the ethnic Kachin farmer to abandon not only his house but also most of his possessions, including his animals and important documents.

Sitting on the concrete floor of the assembly hall at a Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) church in Tanai town, he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday afternoon he wanted to go back, to collect some papers.

About 500 people—most of whom were children and women, some nurturing newborn babies—huddled in groups on the floor. Families lined up to receive food donations; others were too exhausted, and slept.

Around 950 the Kachin internally displaced people (IDPs) have sought shelter at Tanai’s churches: 500 are with the KBC, 200 are in the care of the Catholic Church, 133 are in the Anglican Church, and 120 are staying at two Buddhist monasteries.

But local sources estimate that thousands of villagers and migrants working in amber and gold mines have fled from 10 communities in KIA-controlled territory near the Kawng Ra, N’Ga Ga and Nambyu areas, since fighting broke out between the KIA and the Tatmadaw on June 6.

Many of the migrant workers sheltered at Buddhist monasteries in the township, and some traveled to the Kachin State capital of Myitkyina on the journey back to their hometowns. However, local people have felt that they have nowhere else to go.

“We are in a different condition from the migrant workers,” said Steven Naw Ring, who sometimes works as a miner. “We have to abandon our properties, but they don’t.”

Leaflets dropped from Myanmar Army helicopters over his village on June 8 warned residents to leave by June 15 or the army would recognize them as “insurgents” and take action against them when they launched military operations in the area.

But local sources said Myanmar Army ground troops began attaching the KIA on June 9. The leaflets stated the Tatmadaw would attack the KIA as it had allowed mining in its territory and was destroying the environment.

Mining in the area has not been a recent development, according to locals. Mining operations have been active since 2000 following a ceasefire agreement between the KIA and the Tatmadaw.

Amber and gold mining is the main source of income for the KIA, migrant workers and locals in the area. The majority of Tanai’s people and businesses rely on mining for an income.

Tanai has become crowded with those who fled the mining areas in recent days. Guesthouses and restaurants are packed, while buses and taxis regularly shuttle people to Myitkyina.

Pressure to Evict IDPs

The Myanmar Army is pressuring Christian religious leaders to remove the Kachin people who fled the conflict, including Steven Naw Ring, sheltering at one of its churches, according to an IDP camp committee.

Reverend Dabang Jedi, a KBC spokesperson for Tanai IDPs, told The Irrawaddy that a Burma Army colonel told the committee in a meeting on Tuesday to turn away the IDPs.

“He has told us this at every meeting. He even told us yesterday to move out those IDPs from the town, then send them to stay at Kawng Ra village,” said the reverend.

Kawng Ra, about 10 miles from Tanai town, has experienced fighting for the last two days, according to the KBC.

“We told him it was not safe to send them there,” said reverend Dabang Jedi, adding that the Tatmadaw and local authorities heavily scrutinized IDPs who arrived in the town.

KBC member Naw Seng recounted the colonel telling the committee that if they did not force the IDPs out of town, the army would hold it responsible for any future problems involving the IDPs.

“They put a lot of pressure on our religious leaders to force IDPs out of the town,” said Naw Seng.

Tu Ja, a Kachin IDP camp leader from the Roman Catholic Church, said, “If it was possible, the army would not have IDP camps in Tanai. Maybe they do not want to take responsibility for the IDPs or they do not want to have IDPs camps in the country in the future.

“In order to make them happy, we told them that those people were just temporary IDPs. But if in a year they can not go back to their villages, they will have to stay here,” he added.

Children and women make up most of the recent wave of people fleeing conflict between the Myanmar Army and the KIA in the villages of Tanai Township. (Photo: Lawi Weng / The Irrawaddy)

The KBC church has a ration of four bags of rice per day for about 500 people so far, according to the committee, and the Myanmar Army has not donated anything yet for IDPs.

The committee added that only one representative of the government—the lawmaker from Tanai—helped the IDPs, donating four bags of rice, and the township authorities donated one bag and one basket of cooking oil.

The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) donated 10 bags of rice, and a local company—Citizens Star—donated 10 bags of rice and some drinking water, according to the KBC.

“We will help the IDPs as much as we can. But we do not know how much longer we will have rice to cook for them. We will ask others for donations, too,” said reverend Dabang Jedi.

Father La Sai from the Roman Catholic Church said children were suffering the most, as many of the older people had built up some resistance.

“It was difficult for the IDPs to travel during the rainy season, especially the children, as they had to travel all day,” he said.

The government and the Myanmar Army did not prepare camps for people fleeing their homes in the mining areas, according to local sources, and the wave of IDPs came as a challenging shock to the KBC.

Some local people fled their homes driven by the fear of a coming battle in which the roads would be blocked, preventing them from escaping to Tanai. KIA leaders also told Kachin people to leave the areas, as they said that they could not provide security, according to local sources.

The Myanmar Army has tightened security in Tanai and is checking vehicles traveling on the township’s roads. Local sources said the army is preparing to launch another military offensive against the KIA.