‘Too Much Has Been Lost’: Kachin Women Reflect on Six Years of Conflict

By Sally Kantar 9 June 2017

Only women know what women’s needs are, say those who have now been displaced by conflict in Kachin State for six years.

“Life on Hold,” a joint report launched by aid agencies Trócaire and Oxfam on Thursday in Rangoon, consolidates interviews with more than 100 women who fled their homes for internally displaced persons (IDP) camps after fighting between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) re-ignited after a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011.

The title is a reference to the disruption to daily life for those in the camps, where “access to healthcare is limited, food shortages are common, and domestic violence is prevalent,” said a statement from the report’s sponsoring organizations.

Most of the 100,000-plus civilians in the Kachin IDP camps are women and children, the UN has reported, leading to advocacy for a policy shift that more closely considers their needs. This includes better access to health, education and social services; an establishment of gender-sensitive mechanisms to confront violence against women; and the creation of further opportunities for women to participate in peacebuilding in decision-making roles, from the community level upward.

“Too much has been lost in Kachin [State] and the situation must not deteriorate further,” Birke Herzbruch, Trócaire’s country director for Burma, told The Irrawaddy. “A cessation of hostilities can and must happen immediately. This must be matched with gender-just, inclusive—from the local to the national—peace processes that include reconciliation, justice and rehabilitation.”

The majority of the women interviewed for the report said that during the armed conflict, they had experienced or witnessed physical violence, rape, forced labor, or arbitrary detention of a family member. This, they stated, was perpetrated “mostly by military soldiers,” but “also by soldiers of ethnic armed organizations.”

“Whenever we met [with ‘uniformed soldiers’] we were tortured,” said one interviewee from Bhamo, in December 2015. Women, she said, including those who were pregnant, “were drowned in a big clay pot with water and asked many questions…they filled the pot with water and pushed their heads into it during questioning.”

Trócaire and Oxfam’s research frequently refers to “uniformed soldiers” when describing the perpetrators of acts of violence, avoiding the identification of a specific organization.

Herzbruch explained that this terminology was intended to encourage readers “to consider broader conflict dynamics.” She said that after meeting in focus groups, the women from different “sides” of the conflict identified similarities in their suffering, and “concluded that it would be best to talk about ‘fighting parties’ or ‘uniformed soldiers’ instead of blaming the Armed Forces of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar or the Kachin Independence Army,” noting that all perpetrators “must be brought to account.”

It has long been reported that the Tatmadaw perpetrates a disproportionate number of such abuses. In the Kachin Global Action Statement published on Friday—the sixth anniversary of renewed fighting—Kachin representatives in eight countries accused Burma’s military of engaging in “systematic, widespread acts of violence against civilians.” Among other actions, they also called for international support for a UN fact-finding mission on war crimes in northern Burma, and for a “meaningful” peace agreement to be forged between ethnic armed organizations, the Burma Army, and the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

The statement described the NLD administration as having proved “inept” at pushing Burmese army leadership “to adhere to the international conventions of war.”

Moon Nay Li, signatory to the Kachin Global Action Statement and general secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), told The Irrawaddy that there was a need to highlight the “ongoing impunity” afforded to the Tatmadaw, for the sake of accountability and future processes of transitional justice.

When documenting repeated cases of physical and sexual violence against ethnic nationality women and men, community-based rights groups have named and implicated the Burma Army, often at great risk. In 2016, KWAT provided evidence of what was said to amount to a cover up of the rape and murder of two ethnic Kachin schoolteachers one year earlier in northern Shan State. The crime was widely suspected of having been carried out by Burma Army soldiers stationed in the area; no one has yet been held accountable in the women’s deaths.

“Even though we are scared or afraid, we should say what is happening on the ground,” Moon Nay Li said. “We don’t want a recurrence of these cases in Kachin State, or in other ethnic areas. We don’t want any more anniversaries. We want genuine peace in our country. The time is now, to change.”

Those interviewed for Trócaire and Oxfam’s report emphasized the importance of forming and participating in collective women’s groups, in order to disseminate information concerning peace and conflict and “jointly raise their voices and share their needs” with leadership, added Trócaire’s Herzbruch.

They recommended that the country’s peace process expand negotiations and political dialogue to specifically confront issues of gender-based violence, and to implement international standards outlined in relevant UN frameworks, including Security Council Resolution 1325 and CEDAW.

Last month, the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process (AGIPP) initially estimated that only 20 percent of participants in the second session of Burma’s Union Peace Conference were women—the government later released its own figures, which placed the number of women at around 17 percent. Both are well below the goal of 30 percent female participation set by the AGIPP. The country’s peace process has been decried as lacking inclusivity: of women, and of the ethnic armed groups not signatory to the country’s controversial nationwide ceasefire agreement. It has also progressed parallel to intensified military operations and offensives in Kachin, northern Shan, and Arakan states.

In the first year of its administration, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government has also faced criticism regarding the deterioration of access to humanitarian aid for displaced communities, particularly those in KIA-controlled territory. The Irrawaddy reported at this time last year that IDPs in these areas had been forced to survive on an allowance of just $0.25 per day.

“There are currently many barriers, such as approval processes and unpassable checkpoints, to delivering humanitarian assistance in many parts of Kachin [State],” Herzbruch said, noting that Trócaire and Oxfam have called for unimpeded access to displaced communities, a demand that has not yet been granted.

Without greater support from aid agencies, displaced individuals who participated in the research for “Life on Hold” said they fear they will be unable to escape poverty or return to their villages, many of which remain under military occupation—their homes, livestock, crops, and possessions since destroyed.