The rain is coming down hard, flooding some of the temporary canvas shelters provided by the UNHCR. Families are moving their bedding into the church’s community hall where they will sleep for the night. Despite the obvious discomforts the hundreds of ethnic Kachin recently displaced by fighting in northern Shan State can still count their blessings. At the Kachin Baptist Church (KBC) in Muse; a trade city in north-eastern Myanmar on the border with China, they are safe, especially Zau Gun. He was captured by the Tatmadaw (Myanmar armed forces) and forced to carry heavy mortar rounds as they fought against some of his own people: an alliance of Kachin, Ta’ang and Shan armed groups. With the rain bearing down on the tin roof of one of the church’s offices, Zau Gun tells his sad story.
“At the time I was so afraid, I thought I was going to die,” he recalled. In the early afternoon, several days after fighting broke out between the Tatmadaw and ethnic rebels nearby, about 100 government soldiers from Light Infantry Division 88 arrived at his little village in Munggu Township. At gunpoint, they spared no time in collecting all the villagers for questioning, separating the men and boys from the women and girls.
“Are you a soldier? Where is your gun?” they asked him. “I don’t have gun,” he answered. By then, his four children were bawling at the sight of their father with hands tied while six soldiers loomed menacingly over him. They told Zau Gun he would be killed if his wife who was tending their vegetable plot didn’t return home; she arrived moments later.
“They took four of us as porters that day,” he recalled in a confident voice, which seemed in stark contrast to what he had endured.
The men were forced to carry the soldiers’ ammunition as they travelled on foot around the front line, sporadically fighting with the ethnic armed groups. “They told me they won’t withdraw from the area until they kill all the Kachin people,” Zau Gun said.
“We weren’t allowed to speak to each other,” he said, explaining they kept them together at night, but if they stirred in their sleep they would investigate.
Exhausted and sick from carrying heavy loads for long hours at a time, Zau Gun asked a captain to release him on the seventh day. Once free, he returned to his village only to discover it was abandoned. Eventually Zau Gun was reunited with his family in the nearby Wing Seng village where many of the displaced had gathered. Days later, he heard one of the other porters had escaped; the remaining two were released less than a week later.
Naw Din, a KBC pastor and camp coordinator, said the church acted quickly after hearing news of the fighting. They sent transport trucks and other vehicles to Wing Seng and other areas where the Kachin villagers were sheltering. Naw Din recalls being “a little worried” as he and other church volunteers travelled the front line to bring the displaced families to safety. “We could hear the mortars being fired, the ground was shaking.”
They didn’t wait for permission from the government to rescue the refugees. It was a wise choice. Days after the camp was set up, several township administration officers came by and asked the church leaders “so many questions,” Naw Din said. They denied that fighting had taken place.
Initially the church sheltered over 500 people with support from UNHCR and the World Food Programme. After a month, however, that number had dropped down to around 300. If families could go home, they did, more than eager to get started on a late planting season. For others, conditions on the ground are still unsafe with clashes breaking out near their villages. Or there are government troops based close by, in some cases the soldiers sleeping in their homes and eating their livestock. For still others, their homes were destroyed by shelling and there is nothing to go back to.
Although ceasefire agreements have been inked with most of the major ethnic armed groups, fighting between the Tatmadaw and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has continued to plague the country’s reform process. Ironically, it broke out almost as soon reforms were rolled out.
In June 2011, just months after President Thein Sein was sworn into office, a 17-year-old ceasefire with the political arm of the KIA; the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), unraveled. Pressure was building after the KIO received an ultimatum to transform into a government border guard force. Since then, scores of meetings between the government’s peace team and KIO have made little progress and fighting has largely continued. The KIO say they want more autonomy for their people as promised under the previous 1994 ceasefire. This would involve a federalism system allowing the mainly ethnic dominated states to share power with the Union of Myanmar; the current constitution affords little power outside of the capital Naypyidaw. The government wants a new ceasefire signed before any discussions take place.
The completion of the Shwe Gas and Oil Pipeline project last July has seen many government troops being deployed to northern Shan State. The pipelines, largely bankrolled by China National Petroleum Corporation at an estimated cost of $14.2 million, started pumping oil and gas from Myanmar’s westernmost Arakan State, through northern Shan State destined for China’s Yunnan province.
Various government-endorsed militias, which often support Tatmadaw offensives, have also sprung up in recent years. Because they are required to be financially independent they must compete in the murky world of cross-border trade, commonly involving timber sales, illicit drugs, and human trafficking rings.
Jai Mai was displaced by fighting in Namkut in early May. She’s one of 147 still receiving shelter at the Muse Royal Catholic Church, with many already returned home. In the last two years, government troops often came through Jai Mai’s village in northern Shan State because there used to be a KIA base nearby until being overrun.
They usually harass the men, accusing them of being members of the rebel group, she explains. Jai Mai’s eldest son supports her and his own baby. She looks after the baby while her son works as a cook in China. Her youngest son is addicted to heroin, his whereabouts unknown.
Julia Dai Tse, who hails from the same village, was displaced around the same time.
Neither of the women can return to their village after receiving news that government soldiers are now living in their homes.
“I am so worried, I feel so many emotions. I just want to live in a safe place without war,” Julia Dai Tse said. “Now our rice farms and pigs are gone because the army is there.”