MYITKYINA — “Our village is now a cemetery. There are no people who are alive there, except government troops,” says a displaced Kachin villager living in a camp in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina. “I’m without hope, we can’t go back and, anyway, there is nothing left behind because they [the military] took it.”
The 38-year-old ethnic Kachin woman is from Nam Sam Yang, a once thriving village located on the road between Myitkyina and Laiza, the de facto capital of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) located on the Burma-China border.
She is one of the more than 100,000 Kachin people, according to UN estimates, who remain displaced in Kachin and northern Shan State due to the ongoing conflict between the Burma Army and the KIO. The Kachin were forced to flee their villages after a 17-year-old ceasefire broke down in June 2011.
Since mid-February the fighting has quieted down and President Thein Sein’s chief negotiator Aung Min, who met with the KIO for talks this week, has said that a full ceasefire with the KIO would be reached soon. But displaced villagers told The Irrawaddy during a recent visit to Myitkyina that they don’t see themselves being able to return to their abandoned homes any time soon.
The displaced Kachin woman, who asked that her name not be revealed, has been staying in a temporary shelter for internally displaced persons (IDP) on the grounds of a Myitkyina church since she fled her home in September 2011. Her camp, one of several located in and around Myitkyina, receives regular support from the UN and international NGOs
The IDP camps in rebel-controlled areas—where a majority of the Kachin IDPs have taken shelter—receive far less international support, however, as the Burma government restricts aid supply to these parts.
A fact not lost on the displaced in Myitkyina. “We are very thankful to those who are feeding us, but we want to eat our own food,” says a camp resident, a 42-year-old farmer also from Nam Sam Yang, who yearns for the day he can resume work in his fields.
Yet even with international aid support, the Myitkyina IDPs face serious difficulties and a very uncertain future, while the prospects of the IDPs being able to return to Nam San Yang and numerous other deserted villages across Kachin State remain far from clear.
As has been the case in other villages in eastern Kachin state, many of the homes were burned to the ground by the military and those left standing were severely looted, explains a displaced Kachin villager, who made a brief visit home after personally negotiating access with government troops.
Dangers abound too, for those who return. The villager said although his own home in Nam San Yang was still standing, soldiers warned him not to enter, claiming that it had been booby trapped with landmines. “You can only look at the house, you can’t go into the house,” they told him. “I think they just didn’t want me to go in because it had been robbed,” says the man, a farmer in his early 50s.
Occupying troops have taken advantage of the relative lull in fighting in the area since February by inviting Chinese and Burmese businessmen to come mine shallow gold deposits. What before the conflict began as a small mining operation on the edge of the village has now been expanded significantly, according to several IDPs who have visited their occupied villages.
Mine operators have already taken over a number of small farms where they have dug up the soil and used poisonous chemicals, most likely cyanide or mercury, to separate the gold from other minerals.
The mining men pay a tax to the military to carry out their business and, although the KIO doesn’t currently control the area, the miners also pay tax to the group to ensure things run smoothly, says a Myitkyina-based researcher, who declined to be named.
While the UN agencies running relief operations in Kachin State say they are willing to help facilitate the return of the IDPs to their villages, the conditions that would enable such a return still remain “unmet,” explains Pierre Péron, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“There has not been any significant return by IDPs due to a lack of basic services and livelihood opportunities, sporadic violence, and the presence of unexploded ordnance and landmines in their places of origin,” Péron told The Irrawaddy.
“Any return, resettlement or local integration of the displaced must be voluntary and based on an individual informed decision,” adds Péron, echoing official UN policy relating to the treatment of people displaced by conflict.
Although Burma’s nominally-civilian government has made a point of emphasizing that it is operating differently from the not-so-distant days of brutal military rule, it still routinely disregards the rights of displaced people, say human rights groups.
Earlier this year, local government officials tried to convince some of the IDPs living in Myitkyina to move to a newly constructed model relocation village. Several families initially agreed to relocate to the village, situated about an hour away from Myitkyina, but quickly backed out when they learned that the forms they had signed relinquish all rights to the farmlands they had before the fighting.
The dozen or so hastily constructed homes in the new village, which is located on a flood plain with poor soil, remain unoccupied. According to a Kachin IDP rights advocate who visited the site, this is just as well, because the remote site is “completely unsuited” for the needs of the farming families the government wanted to relocate there.
The fate of the large displaced Kachin population will likely remain a major issue in northern Burma for years to come.
“Even if there is a genuine peace agreement sometime soon, safe and voluntary returns are a very long way off,” said Matthew Smith, author of a 2012 Human Rights Watch report on the Kachin conflict.
Smith, who now serves as the executive director of the newly-formed group Fortify Rights, warns that thousands of landmines placed by both the KIO and the government across Kachin and north western Shan state will complicate the IDP’s chances for a return home.
“The landscape is littered with landmines. There would have to be a significant de-mining program throughout the state, involving the displaced communities, and that will take time, especially considering landmines are still being deployed today,” says Smith.
Despite the goodwill on offer at this week’s talks between the KIO and the government, which yielded another agreement but no ceasefire, neither side appears ready to give up their landmines just yet, a necessary precursor to the refugees being able to return to what remains of their rural villages.