18 June 2013
Kachin State, Burma
Thousands of villagers in Kachin State and northern Shan State have been displaced from their homes for nearly two years by Burma Army advances and see little hope of an imminent return. This is in spite of ongoing talks between the Burma Army and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) to resolve the conflict which has continued for over two years since 9 June 2011. While fighting in Kachin State is greatly reduced, clashes continue in northern Shan State as the Burma Army advances against Shan, Ta’ang and Kachin positions there.
Free Burma Ranger teams recently visited five Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps in the KIA’s 3rd Brigade area, providing medical care and Good Life Club children’s programs in each camp. All together in these 5 camps live about 5,155 people, a fraction of the over 100,000 who have been displaced since 2011 in northern Shan and Kachin States. During this mission, the Government of Burma and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) held talks and released a statement on 30 May 2013, in which they “agree to undertake efforts to achieve de-escalation and cessation of hostilities” but did not agree to a formal ceasefire. IDPs staying in the camps said they wanted to return but could not do so while the Burma Army was still in and near their home villages. According to a leader at one IDP camp, “If we have safety and freedom in our land we can go back, but now we are not free or safe.” The Government/KIO statement mentioned agreement “to continue discussions” on repositioning troops but made no concrete plan.
The IDPs’ home villages feel like ghost towns; they are full of dilapidated homes and farms after two years of abandonment. A few people have chosen to return to their villages despite the risks. In Ma Gi Gun Village, eight of 48 families had returned after initially fleeing in December 2011 when the village was attacked by Burma Army Light Infantry Division (LID) 99. Ji Tawng, age 33, returned in May 2012 and since then has had to run from the village four or five times whenever Burma Army patrols came close. She said that living in the abandoned village is difficult and she does not feel safe, but prefers living in her home to living in the IDP camp.
There are few reports of fighting in Kachin State since the Government/KIO talks. On 14 and 16 June 2013 in Northern Shan State, fighting took place between KIA soldiers and Burma Army troops from IB 242 and Burma Army proxy forces. The fighting occurred between Loilawm and Yinglar Villages in the KIA 4thBrigade area of control in Northern Shan State, which is adjacent to Kachin State. In the KIA 3rd Brigade area near La Kat Ko Village, on 5 June 2013, a KIA landmine exploded when a Burma Army unit moved in close proximity to a KIA position. On 8 June 2013 beginning at 10:10pm until 2:00am on 9 June, near Nam Hu in northern Shan State, there was a clash between a KIA local militia unit and Burma Army Infantry Battalion (IB) 128 that started when the KIA detonated a mine in response to Burma Army movement. On 10 June, IB 128 advanced on the militia’s position at Hpai Kawng, and the groups fought from 2:30pm to 3:20pm. Two Burma Army soldiers were killed. At 3:30pm, the Burma Army fired 60mm mortars from Kawng Sahte on the KIA position. Also in northern Shan State in June, there was one clash between the Burma Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) near Man Loi Village in Namsam Township, and another clash between the Burma Army and TNLA on 14 June near Long Gam Village in Kutkai Township.
“NOW IN OUR TIME OF NEED YOU HAVE COME AGAIN”; 98-YEAR-OLD KACHIN MAN TO AN FBR TEAM LEADER.
At one IDP site 894 men, women and children were gathered to join us in a Good Life Club and medical program. Our Kachin, Karen and Karenni Rangers sang, gave medical and dental care, performed educational programs and played with the children.
As we were greeting the IDPs at the beginning of the program, a bent-over old man walked in, leaning shakily on a stick. He was beaming and said, “Thanks so much for coming, I am so happy, I am so happy you Americans came again. You helped us when we needed it in World War II and helped us be free of the Japanese oppression. Now in our time of need you have come again.” As he shook our hands and thanked each of us I asked him how old he was. “I am 98 years old and thankful to be able to be here,” he answered.
Halfway through the program he grew tired, motioned me over and said, “I am too old, I love this but need to rest, and please excuse me”. He got up shakily but could only manage a few feet leaning on his stick before he was out of breath and strength and dropping to the ground, began to crawl. I went to him and lifted him up. I held him up and helped him get to his plywood, bamboo and tin shelter about one hundred years away. Upon arriving at his shelter he lay down, panting in front of the opening. After a short time, he sat up and smiled and told me, “Thank you so much.”
I was touched and also felt sadness and concern – sadness that we could not help him very much, and concern that some people were now considering sending military advisers to the Burma Army, the very army that had displaced him. He helped the US during World War II, loves Americans and trusts us.
It is good that the US and international community are involved with Burma, and there should also be an equal and just involvement with the ethnic groups at every level. If the international community is going to engage with the Burma Army, the 98-year-old Kachin man and his people need us to engage with them as well.
I prayed with him and then he prayed for me, a long, powerful prayer. As he prayed I felt I was in the presence of God and one of His special people. I saw that though his body was frail and wasting away, his spirit was strong and rose out of him. A great soul was here and he shone brightly. His humility, faith and joy lifted me up as I walked back to the program. I thanked God for the privilege of knowing this man and seeing the power of his soul.
AT THE SAME TIME IN A DIFFERENT PART OF THE CAMP, A GROUP OF YOUNG KACHIN SPOKE OF THE SAME ISSUES WITH TWO OF THE RANGERS.
While exploring the area, we met several young Kachin volunteers who were working in the camp. They had come from government-controlled cities and had taken risks by crossing the battle lines to help the IDPs. There was a 31-year-old civil engineer from Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State, who took a leave from his job to build a school and a water system for the camp. There was a 24-year-old woman from Bhamo, who was volunteering with a charity building toilets and delivering aid. There were other volunteers: a teacher, a medic, a relief administrator; all in their twenties and early thirties. I was impressed with all of them: all smart, educated, idealistic and taking risks to do something good for people in need.
We explained to them that the U.S. Government is considering extending certain types of training to the Burma Army and we asked them what they wanted to say to members of Congress about it. They said the US is welcome to get involved in Burma, but if they will only get involved with the Burma Army that will encourage the military to increase its oppression. The Burma Army will use US involvement to its own advantage. If the US wanted to engage not only with the Burma Army, but also with the ethnic resistance groups, then it could be a good thing.
They said that even in the government-controlled cities in Kachin State, most people support the KIO and KIA because they want there to be an organization and an army that stands up for them against the government. They said that there is, of course, a diversity of opinions and some people see the KIO as a negative influence, but most see it as their representatives standing against the oppression of the government.
One of the volunteers said, as a final comment, that what she really dislikes is that there are governments in the world that love their people and work to help them, but the Burmese government only takes away from the people to help themselves.
IDP CAMP INFORMATION
Below is a compilation of information on each IDP camp that was visited, based on interviews from camp leaders and IDPs.