F or more than six months in 2011, Ywe Ja refused to leave her village in Myanmar's Kachin State despite heavy fighting. It was where she was born, and she had built a life there as a teacher with a farmer husband and a young child. (Reuters Photo/Soe Zeya Tun)

In Myanmar's Kachin, Families Uprooted by War Pin Hopes on New Government


JANUARY 16, 2016

Myitkyina, Myanmar. For more than six months in 2011, Ywe Ja refused to leave her village in Myanmar's Kachin State despite heavy fighting. It was where she was born, and she had built a life there as a teacher with a farmer husband and a young child.

Fighting between the ethnic insurgent group the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar army in the country's north erupted that year after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire.

"Then the authorities started seeing Kachins as part of the KIA," Ywe Ja said. "Business and social rivals could accuse you of having links with the KIA and the army would arrest you without any investigations."

Worried that her husband would fall prey to these suspicions and heavily pregnant with her second child, she finally left Tar Law Gyi, a village about two hours' drive from Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, in March 2012.

Two weeks after arriving at the St. Paul Jan Mai Hkawng camp, she gave birth.

"I never thought I'd end up staying here so long," she said, sitting in the thatched-walled meeting room of the camp that she now helps to manage with the support of local group Karuna Myanmar Social Services, run by the Catholic Church.

Fighting has died down in her village, but her family has not returned, fearing the continued presence of the army and land mines in the area.

Now, for the first time since leaving her home, Ywe Ja says she has hope, which rests with Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, the party that won the November election in a landslide.

"I woke up really early to vote. I'm very happy that the NLD won. I think they will prioritize the peace process," she told Myanmar Now, an independent news service supported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Fighting has displaced around 100,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan States since June 2011 after a ceasefire fractured over long-held grievances.

Life in camps for people uprooted by fighting is becoming increasingly difficult.

"There are no jobs nearby...Foreign aid has been reducing and because everything is up in the air," said Phyu Ei Aung of the Metta Foundation that has been providing aid since 2011.

Violence against women is rife, in the majority of cases husbands taking out their frustration on their wives, she added.

It is little wonder then that many have been galvanized by the election results, where the NLD's strong showing in ethnic states surprised observers. In Kachin, the party won 22 of 30 parliamentary seats and more than half of the state legislature, giving it a strong mandate to govern at both local and national levels.

"All the displaced are looking forward to the new government to create (a country) where everyone is able to live happily and peacefully regardless of their race and religion," said Ja Khun Ya, a 40-year-old from the same village as Ywe Ja.


Since fighting resumed, the internally displaced people (IDPs) have been languishing in small, hastily-built shelters that flood in monsoon and become unbearably hot in the summer, facing dwindling aid support.

The United Nations' World Food Program, which provides food assistance to IDPs in Kachin, told Myanmar Now it is facing a $51 million shortfall in funds.

The IDPs say they are willing to work, but jobs are few and far between. They say most end up working in construction sites for a daily wage of around $2.30 for women and $4.70 for men.

"The employers sometimes pay us less. They would say, 'You are receiving support from aid agencies so 2,000 kyats ($1.50) is enough.' We don't have a choice," Ja Khun Ya said.

In the bigger Zi Un camp, where 710 people are supported mainly by the Kachin Baptist Convention, dozens of women make money sewing traditional Kachin headgear, which allows them to stay close to their children. It is a time-consuming task, taking 40 to 50 minutes to earn 100 Kyats ($0.08) for each colorful headpiece.


Suu Kyi said in an Independence Day speech this month that the peace process would be the first priority of her new government, which is due to take power in March.

As hundreds of representatives of guerrilla groups, the military and members of parliament gathered in the capital Naypyidaw this week for the second stage of talks aimed at ending decades-long ethnic conflicts, she said more of Myanmar's rebel groups should be brought into peace talks.

The outgoing semi-civilian government of President Thein Sein signed what it called a nationwide ceasefire agreement in October, but seven of 15 rebel groups invited to participate declined to sign, including some of the most powerful.

Aid workers in Kachin State warned against setting expectations too high.

"I don't think we will see any drastic changes for a year or two. Even if the IDPs can go back to their villages because the political situation is now good, we would still need to assist them so they can go back to making a living like they did before the fighting," said Metta's Phyu Ei Aung.

Lu San, a 39-year-old mother of four who used to run a small store, said she went through the lengthy bureaucratic process to gain approvals to briefly go back to her village across the river from Myitkyina a few months after fleeing. They had left the shop and hundreds of baskets of paddy behind.

"There was nothing left. All the valuable stuff had been looted. I heard later the army took them," she said, her voice rising at the memory.

Born in 1942, Hkun Baw La recalls fighting in Kachin in the 1960s. Yet ordinary citizens forged lasting friendships and in his village, home to Shan, Kachin and Bamar, and a Christian church and a Buddhist monastery stood side-by-side before the fighting flared up again.

Now Kachin militias roam many villages, including his own, and the Shan and Bamar had received weapons from the army to protect themselves against the KIA.