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Five years on, displaced Kachins remain in limbo

More than 100,000 people, many of them Christians, remain in temporary camps in Myanmar's north

Five years on, displaced Kachins remain in limbo

An elderly Kachin woman in a camp for internally displaced people in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state, December 2014. (ucanews.com photo by John Zaw)

Ze Nywi got up early, excited to join the march. Thousands of displaced Kachin — an ethnic minority group in Myanmar — protested with placards emblazoned with messages: "We want to go home" and "End fighting in Kachin state."

"We express our strong desire [to return] to our homes, to end fighting and get peace in Kachin state," said Ze Nywi, a 42-year-old mother of three.

About 10,000 displaced people gathered in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin on June 9, to call for peace. It was the fifth anniversary of the renewal of hostilities between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army after a 17-year ceasefire broke down.

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More than 100,000 internally displaced people, many of them Christians, remain living in temporary camps in Kachin and northern Shan state. Roughly half live in rebel-controlled areas with limited access to humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Ze Nywi recalled how her mother and five members of her family fled from Innkwaryan village near Laiza, the Kachin Independence Army's headquarters, when the fighting began.

"We have been living in a small room in a displaced persons camp for five years," Ze Nywi, a Baptist, told ucanews.com. "We yearn to [return] home but the prospect for peace remains uncertain."


Chance for peace

Around 130 community and international organizations have taken the opportunity to issue a joint statement calling for peace. "We call upon the government and the military to end the war in Kachin state," it read.

They added that authorities should provide "safe, sustained, and unhindered access" to allow humanitarian organizations to give necessary help and support.

Gum Sha Awng, a male program coordinator for the Metta Development Foundation, a local non-government organization that provides humanitarian aid for the displaced, said that there is a chance for peace under the new democratic government.

"According to testimonies made by internally displaced people, their safety and security would only be guaranteed when… [the] ceasefire agreement [is completed]," Gum Sha Awng told ucanews.com. "[This means] withdrawal of military troops from frontline areas and establishing independent joint monitoring mechanisms."


Ethnic Kachin children have a meal in a temporary camp in Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state in December, 2014. (ucanews.com photo by John Zaw)


Funding shortfalls

Local aid groups say that international funding has decreased for displaced Kachins. The World Food Program had provided rice, oil, salt and beans but they are now providing cash instead. "We are struggling with funding shortages," said Gum Sha Aung.

He added that he is concerned for the children living in the camps. School drop out rates remain high because parents can't afford school fees, according to his own survey.

Brang Aung, who has lived in an displaced persons camp in Waimaw township, near Myitkyna, since December 2011, said that cash assistance for his seven family members is not enough and he has to work as a laborer to make ends meet.

"We no longer want to stay in a temporary camp," said Aung, a Catholic and father of five. "[The] small space [makes us] lose our dignity so we want to go back home," he said.

Kachin state is a predominately Christian region that has been racked by civil war since Myanmar gained independence from the British in 1948.

The Catholic Church has played a important role in providing food and non-food items as well as spiritual and social programs in the camps in Kachin and northern Shan State since 2011, according to Father Paul Awng Dang, director of Caritas in Banmaw Diocese, Kachin state.

"We don't distinguish between the church and those in the camps," Father Awng Dang told ucanews.com.


High expectations

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy won a landslide victory in last November's election resulting in renewed hopes for peace. A new civilian-led government has pledged to end fighting and Suu Kyi has scheduled a peace conference for July or August this year.

"Almost all people from the camps voted National League for Democracy," said Brang Aung from the Maina displaced persons camp where some 1,200 live.

"We have high expectations for them to bring peace [to the] conflict-torn Kachin state. But … the process of peace remains elusive. So we need to wait and see [how the new] government [reacts]."

For Ze Nywi from Jai Mai Kaung camp, she and others in the same situation wanted to share their feelings with National League for Democracy officials but the state's chief minister has yet to visit to a camp.

"We are looking forward to meeting with state's chief minister," Ze Nywi told ucanews.com. "And we hope that the situation will improve under the new government."

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