IDPs Lulu Pan on the flute and Maran Hkwan Ja on the violin take advantage of music classes at Mung Myit Sin Li Boarding School. Photo: Carleton Cole

More than 120,000 Kachin have been forced from their homes and been deprived of their livelihoods after a 17-year ceasefire ended with Myanmar’s resumption of its offensive war eight years ago this week.

Promised autonomy in the newly freed Burma after colonial Britain quit the country in 1948, non-Burman groups like the Rohingya, Kachin and Shan instead have since then regularly faced persecution and land grabs by successive military-dominated governments that have pilfered much of the country’s abundant natural resources.

Quietude belying the protracted nature of the conflict blankets N’Hkawng Pa IDP Camp in a mountainous area of Kachin state controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) near the Chinese border. Most of the IDPs (internally displaced persons) here arrived after June 9,  2011, and ever since have struggled to restart lives upended by a war in an area studded with timber, rare-earth elements, rubies and the world’s largest jade depositories. Food aid is not allowed to be delivered to IDP camps in KIO-controlled areas through either Myanmar or China.

October 28, 2011, was a Friday. Relatives of Sumlut Roi Je cannot forget this detail; it was the last day they saw her. The story is relayed by Maru Ze Hkawng, whose son Maru Dau Lum had married Sumlut. While harvesting corn near their home in Hkai Bang village, three family members were suddenly surrounded by Myanmar soldiers, who forced them to march out of their fields and toward a hilltop military outpost.

Amid the rugged beauty of N’Hkawng Pa IDP Camp, Maru Ze Hkawng helps raise a young girl whose mother was disappeared by the Burmese military in 2011. Photo: Carleton Cole

Wearing a forlorn expression, eight-year-old daughter Lum Naw silently listens to the story of how her family was ripped apart eight years ago when her mother disappeared. Speaking in their native Kachin language, or Jinghpaw, Maru describes how Lum Naw’s parents and paternal grandfather, knowing the perils that faced them in Burmese custody, confirmed with each other in Jinghpaw the intention to escape by jumping down a steep slope which they were being marched along.

While Sumlut’s husband and father-in-law successfully tumbled down the slope away from the soldiers, they saw Sumlut hesitate for a moment, giving their captors enough time to react to the getaway unfolding and tighten their hold on their one remaining prisoner. Over the weekend at the small hilltop military outpost they had been being led to, members of the family saw someone from a distance who looked like she could have been Sumlut. On Monday afternoon, gunshots were heard. After that the outpost was abandoned.

The armed wing of the KIO, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), eventually took control of the area. “We miss her every day. We don’t know with certainty what happened to her,” says Maru. “We made inquiries but they were dismissed and after certain shifts in personnel we were told that there was no record even of our inquires having been made. The truth was swallowed up. We have no closure.”

Lum Naw faces a life full of unideal circumstances including limited educational and career opportunities, and poor nutrition and health care, in a region teeming with riches but racked by war. Education and livelihoods are among the key areas foremost in the minds of Kachin IDP families according to “The Hidden War,” a new report surveying them, published by a handful of local civil-society groups and funded by the European Union, which says, “Just a quarter of the IDPs had the opportunity to acquire new livelihood skills. Vocational training has decreased in the last years, particularly in the Kachin-controlled area. Vocational training for young people is minimal and not designed for their psychology and interests.”

Mending what’s left

Hkawn Yi, a fresh-faced IDP in her 20s, is reaping the benefits of trade and business skills given to her in a tailoring course this year provided by civil-society group The People’s Light, or Wunpawng Ninghtoi, one of the co-publishers of “The Hidden War.” The optimistic new entrepreneur distills the art and craft of tailoring as a three-part process: “You take the measurements, draw a pattern, and sew.”

Hawng Nan, an artisan sharing bamboo-weaving trade skills with fellow IDPs at Pa Kahatawng IDP Camp. Photo: Carleton Cole

“I only wish human societies could be similarly constructed,” adds Hkawn Yi, whose home village of Ja Hkai, located midway between a military camp and a KIA position, was burned down by government soldiers in 2011. Her can-do attitude reflects the quiet sense of hope embedded deep in the Kachin, who number some 1.5 million and comprise around 1% of Myanmar’s population.

Hkawn Yi’s simple shop is made of the same stopgap-cum-permanent plywood and sheet-metal buildings that shelters in N’Hkawng Pa IDP Camp are made out of. Clients are mostly fellow IDPs in need of new clothing and bags, or a few stitches to stretch old items. “I miss my home but am grateful to have been given this chance to start again,” she says. “Most important, now I can pass along training and skills. I have good income so far – not all that high yet but OK for a startup. But a new generation of IDPs is coming of age and deserves all the opportunity and inspiration they can get.”

According to Fortify Rights, Myanmar’s severe restrictions on importing food, medical supplies, building materials and other necessities continue to cause significant degradation to the quality of life among Kachin IDPs. This lack of access to IDPs in desperate need of better basic necessities, the human-rights watchdog reports, is designed to complicate the process of getting aid into KIO-administered areas, and compounded by China’s tightening up of its own borders into these areas.

A few hours’ drive south of N’Hkawng Pa IDP Camp, along a road the KIO is working to seal before monsoon season kicks up, Hawng Nan, a woman in her 40s, is also weaving her life back together with trade skills she has developed as an IDP in the Pa Kahatawng Camp, just outside the KIO-administered town of Mai Ja Yang. “My son and I would rather work here in the Kachin-controlled area any day rather than in the Burmese-controlled region,” says the widow, whose KIA soldier husband died in a combat. “We are proud to be giving skills back to our people. I would also like to have my own business someday.”

Hawng Nan has been living with her two sons and two daughters since mid-2011, when they had no choice but to flee their life-long home in Nam Lim Pa village. Her elder son is 18 already and now introduces young victims of war to the healing power of music in guitar classes, while her younger son is learning to be a carpenter. Hawng Nan trains young women to weave strips of bamboo into sellable products various baskets and boxes.

“Life in the IDP camp is hard,” she says while showing some of the goods she has learned to manipulate deftly out of strips bamboo reeds that cost her about 200 yuan (US$29) for 20 big bundles. “Sometimes more items can be made using a specific bundle, depending upon the quality of the bamboo. If I’m lucky, I can make five bamboo baskets instead of three, using one bundle.

“We have a very limited space to stay in, and it’s a struggle to make money to have basic supplies. But we have to stay strong. What else can we do?”

Intrinsic joie de vivre

A passion for learning and smiling infuses Lulu Pan, 19, who like most of the 540 students in Mung Myit Sin Li Boarding School in Mai Ja Yang are ethnic Kachin from nearby northern Shan state, where villages have faced the same fate as those in Kachin state since June 2011.

“I’m happy here but I miss my family. Music helps. I like learning to play the flute and am also spending time making pillowcases and handicrafts,” says Lulu, whose family lives in an IDP camp near the KIO capital Laiza. “I hope to become a doctor in the future. I like medicine. I would like to join a medical program in nearby Mangshi, in Yunnan province. There’s opportunity in China.”

At the school she particularly enjoys history classes focusing on the Kachin’s culture, Jinghpaw language and Christian heritage – topics the school administration says are severely restricted in schools in sections of Kachin controlled by the central government.

Dedicated service

The sense of integrity and the quiet determination to help fellow Kachin, and particularly the ethnic group’s female IDPs, also motivates Sergeant Meitung Hkawmseng, 26, who joined the KIA in 2015. In four months of grueling basic training to become an Alternate Net Control Officer, she impressed her superior officers and eventually earned her stripes fueled by what seems like an inexhaustible source of energy.

Meitung Hkawmseng, a sergeant with the Kachin Independence Army who enlisted to help her people’s struggle against the central government. Photo: Carleton Cole

“Training was very hard. We had to go through jungle terrain and over mountains,” Meitung says. “But I am doing this for the Kachin people. This is not about me but is simply what I have to do.”

In 2017 it became clear from Myanmar troop movements that her family could no longer remain in the village of Ngotrapraong, near Bhamo town. They fled and became IDPs just before the town was destroyed by government soldiers.

While the KIA no longer positions female soldiers in forward positions, they provide support services if need be. “I’ve visited front lines before,” says Meitung with a disarming smile. “If called on, I can fight and have been trained to do so.”

Carleton Cole

Carleton Cole is a journalist with a focus on issues related to migration and travel who has lived in Bangkok for more than 20 years, written two books and previously worked for The Nation newspaper and Mahidol University International Demonstration School.

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