Displaced Civilians Weigh in On War and Peace in Kachin State

Saw Yan Naing The Irrawaddy

LAIZA, Kachin State — Sitting outside her bamboo shelter in the Je Yang camp for displaced civilians, Kaw Hpang, 61, cannot forget the day she was attacked by government soldiers.

“I lost everything,” says the 61-year-old, an ethnic Kachin woman who fled her home in Nam San Yang village, Waimaw Township, in June 2011. Since then, she has lived in this camp near the town of Laiza, a stronghold for Kachin rebels. “I lost my home, my land and my garden. I can’t control my mind when I recall this memory. I want to cry every time I talk about it.”

More than 8,200 civilians have sought shelter at the Je Yang camp since June 2011, when a 17-year ceasefire deal broke down and clashes resumed between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). These internally displaced people (IDPs) came from more than 50 villages in different parts of the state.

Amid peace talks, they say they are tired of war. “I pray every morning and every night, wishing for a chance to return home,” says Zing Htung Ji Tawng, another resident at the temporary camp. “It doesn’t matter whether we are happy or unhappy here—we have no choice but to stay.”

IDPs at the camp live in shelters that were constructed with wood, bamboo and plastic sheets. Like 90 percent of people in Kachin State, most of them are Christian, and they look forward to celebrating Christmas next month. They hope it will be happier than the holiday last year, when the government army launched airstrikes against the KIA on Christmas Eve, forcing thousands of civilians to flee their homes.

The United Nations has joined local and international NGOs in providing aid to IDPs throughout the state, though assistance to rebel-held areas around Laiza has been heavily restricted by the government. The Je Yang camp has received food and other supplies, but camp life has taken a toll on livelihoods.

“Back home in our village, we could go hunting or work to make extra income,” says La Htaw Brang Gun. He and his neighbors dare not leave the camp for fear of attack.

The KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), is one of two major rebel groups in the country that has not signed an individual ceasefire deal with President Thein Sein’s government, which has sought to end decades-long conflicts in several ethnic minority states since coming to power in 2011. However, KIO members have been meeting with a government peace delegation this year, most recently last month. Both sides signed an agreement to de-escalate hostilities, but clashes have continued.

This week the KIO is hosting a major conference in Laiza with leaders of ethnic rebel groups from around the country. The goal is to discuss strategy before next month, when the government plans to invite all rebel groups to Naypyidaw to consolidate individual ceasefires into a nationwide ceasefire agreement.

But among the IDPs, confidence about a genuine peace deal is mixed.

“In my life I have fled repeatedly from war while they talked about ceasefire,” says La Htaw Brang Gun. “I’m now over 60 years old. I can’t even count how many times my family and I have fled from war and been displaced.”

“We want peace, for sure. We want the peace talks to be successful. But I still have doubts because I have suffered the consequences of war repeatedly, even though a ceasefire agreement was reached in the past,” he added, referring to the KIO’s 1994 ceasefire deal.

Y J Kaw Seng, a housewife in Je Yang camp, agrees. “We don’t want short-term peace,” she says. “We want real peace, and peace that lasts forever. They hold talks often. They signed an agreement, but we feel nothing has changed. We want an end to the fighting.”

In the camp environment, uncertainty has led to speculation of further conflict.

“We have heard the government army sent weapons, artillery and ammunition to store at their frontline bases,” says Kaw Hpang. “They are prepared, so we don’t know what will happen. We heard that if the KIO does not sign a ceasefire agreement, they will launch offensives.

“We feel unsafe and unhappy now. We worry. But we hope the world will know our situation. We want the world to help us.”