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The displaced in northern Shan State wait in the hope of peace

As the Myanmar military and ethnic militias fight, thousands of civilians remain in camps

The displaced in northern Shan State wait in the hope of peace

An ethnic Kachin woman in a Karuna-run internally displaced people (IDP) camp in Namkham township, northern Shan State in early 2017. Karuna is the name for Caritas in Myanmar. (Photo supplied by Karuna Lashio)

John Zaw and Michael Sainsbury, Lashio
Myanmar

August 31, 2017

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Lu Awng heard gunfire from an internal displaced camp when the Ta'ang National Liberation Army ambushed a military convoy in Mantong, northern Shan State on Aug.5.

It was just another incident that reminded her how hazardous life remains in this part of Myanmar.

"People in the camps especially elderly and children are afraid and they are concerned for their safety," Lu Awng, a 27-year-old Catholic mother of three, told ucanews.com.

Five years ago, Lu Awng fled her village due to fighting between the military and another ethnic group, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Since then she has been in a camp run by the Lashio branch of Karuna (Caritas) Myanmar in Mantong, a Ta'ang (Palaung) self-administered zone where about 170 displaced ethnic Lisu and Kachins reside.

She sometimes goes back to her village, an hour's drive by motorcycle from the camp, to look for firewood. Last year, she saw clashes between the military and the KIA near her village.

"We can't say when we are able to return home but we want peace," said Lu Awng.

 

A nation divided

Civil wars continue to plague many ethnic-minority states in Myanmar, particularly in the country's northern, mainly Christian, Kachin State. This conflict has spread into the northern part of neighboring Shan State. Since hostilities resumed in 2011, following a 17-year ceasefire that broke down, more than 120,000 people have been forced to flee their homes and they remain in internally displaced people (IDP) camps.

There are 179 camps in Kachin and northern Shan States that are generally away from conflict zones. The number of people in the camps ranges from 70 to over 2,000.

Among the IDPs in Kachin State 49 percent are children and 7 percent are elderly. In the camps in Shan State 50 percent are children and 12 percent elderly.

 

 

Ethnic Kachin women working in a Karuna-run IDP camp in Namkham township, northern Shan State in early 2017. (Photo supplied by Karuna Lashio)

 

There are around 28,000 Catholics and 200,000 Baptists in the Buddhist majority state. The state's inhabitants include ethnic Shan, Palaung, Kachin, Wa, Kokang. It is home to several militias — the KIA, the Ta'ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army who are all currently fighting Myanmar's military.

Jar La, coordinator of the NGO Metta foundation's branch office in the large town of Lashio, said that aid workers face challenges providing humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. The main challenge, he said, is that they have been blocked delivering aid by both the military and non-state armed groups.

He recalled once when aid workers were blocked by the Ta'ang National Liberation Army who said that there was fighting in the area they needed to access.

"We later found out that there were no clashes but we were still blocked and turned back," Jar La, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com.

 

Unfulfilled history

Aung San Suu Kyi's government has pledged to prioritize peace in the country. Her father, General Aung San oversaw the Panglong Agreement that covered issues related to self-autonomy and federalism with the Kachin, Shan and Chin ethnic groups in 1947. But the deal was never fulfilled when in that same year, Aung San was assassinated and ethnic groups took up arms against the central government.

Despite Suu Kyi convening the 21st Century Panglong Conference in August 2016 and May 2017, peace remains elusive in Myanmar's north despite her pledging it as a priority again when she met villagers from central Myanmar on Aug. 7.

"I want all my citizens to consider that the peace process is a matter for everybody. We can maintain development only when we achieve peace," Suu Kyi told hundreds of people in Myaetinekan village, Mandalay Division.

Three days after talking with the villagers, more than 1,000 people further north fled fighting between the military and the KIA. They sought refuge at Catholic and Baptist churches in Mogaung and Namti townships in Kachin State.

Bishop Philip Lasap Za Hawng of Lashio in northern Shan State is concerned that the ongoing clashes will undermine the Suu Kyi-initiated peace process.

"But if the military stops its offensive in ethnic areas, the possibility for peace is much higher," Bishop Hawng, an ethnic Kachin, told ucanews.com.

 

Children in a Karuna-run IDP camp in Namkham township, northern Shan State in early 2017. (Photo supplied by Karuna Lashio)

 

Since 2011, Karuna Myanmar has increasingly provided humanitarian assistance to the IDPs. As part of that, Karuna has been looking to provide rehabilitation programs for those who have been stuck in camps for long periods of time.

The branch office of Karuna in Lashio recently held a meeting with parish priests who look after IDP camps in Shan State to discuss rehabilitation programs to be put in place early next year.

Eddie, a project manager with the Karuna Lashio branch, said that long stays in camps and no employment has affected the people and they need assistance.

"We will start rehabilitation programs in what are currently conflict free areas. We hope that the displaced people will have a safe, voluntary and dignified return but first we need to begin to prepare them for life outside of the camps," Eddie told ucanews.com.

Peter Nawng Lat, a Catholic who has resided at the Karuna-run IDP camp in Kutkai for five years, said there was sporadic fighting near the camp last December between an alliance of ethnic armed groups and Myanmar's military. Following the initial clash, they built a bunker for safety.

Originally, Nawng Lat and others thought they would stay in the camp just for a few months.

"We will finally go back home when the fighting has stopped, whenever that is," Nawng Lat told ucanews.com. But he added if fighting continues such prospects are getting smaller and smaller.

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