MAI JA YANG, Kachin State — Mary Tawn oversees six camps along China-Burma border for internally displaced persons (IDPs), housing a total of more than 10,000 people, including more than 4,000 children.
She co-founded local relief agency Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN) in June 2011 when fighting broke out between the Kachin Independence Army and government troops, sending more than 100,000 people in total into temporary shelters.
Almost three years later, The Irrawaddy sat down with Mary Tawn at WPN’s office at Mai Ja Yang to talk about her work.
Question: How did you start your organization?
Answer: The war broke out on June 9, 2011, at San Gang village in Moe Mauk Township in the eastern division of the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization]-controlled area. Villagers from San Gang village had to leave their homes in fear of their lives. They were not able to pick up their property, including cash, and it was during rainy season. It is about six hours drive by motorcycle from here, Mai Ja Yang.
We heard that villagers, including women and children, were in trouble and having difficulties to survive in the forest. A group of women in Mai Ja Yang discussed how we could help them, even though we had no experience of helping war refugees. With the desire to help people who had run away from the war, we went to groups like churches, local groups and local NGOs that mostly work on environmental conservation issues to form this group on June 14, 2011.
Q: How did you plan to run the organization?
A: We had nothing when we started. There were some personal donations and a Kachin women’s group donated 6,000 yuan [almost US$1,000] as our main funding. We started with over 100 youth volunteers to help us. As the battle got more severe, the number of refugees increased. There was no large funding from international NGOs until Feb. 8, 2012, but Kachin living in China and some others donated to us.
We saved it and distributed rations once every 15 days. We started to realize that this was not going to be a temporary task and we would have to continue to help people. At that time it was getting harder and the battle got even more severe.
Not to mention humanitarian principles and standards, it was a situation where we are working hard simply to provide food for them daily. We decided to travel to Rangoon and give a presentation about the needs of IDPs in KIO-controlled areas. We got connected with Save the Children International from that trip. The situation was really bad at the time.
We reformed WPN into a nonprofit organization then, and all the founders became partners in 2012 April. It was already one year after the war began that Save the Children became our implementation partner, which it remains until now.
We are not a registered organization [with the Burma government] but we have already notified KIO central committee because we are based in KIO-controlled areas. We were also recognized by the Minister of Welfare, Myat Myat Ohn Khin together with other Kachin NGOs as a joint strategy team, and we explained to her what we have been doing.
Q: What is the current need in the camps?
A: Firewood is the urgent need, especially for students at boarding houses. About 300 of them use about $750 per month for that. One good meal for IDP students at the boarding houses is also essential. They have only two meals per day, one at 7:30 am and 5:00 pm. They cannot eat anything the whole day. Children who live with their parents can have cold and leftover rice, but these boarding house children cannot.
I have been asking for funding for this for a long time, but I couldn’t get it yet. Some students have got gastric problems. We used to provide food for extra-nutrition for old people like distributing Horlicks and Ovaltine. But we got no funding this year and we cannot provide them this anymore. Shelter is urgently needed for Bum Tsit Pa camp. Shelter renovation for all camps is needed too where water supply is a problem in summer.
Q: What are you doing to address the trauma the refugees have suffered?
A: We also do psychosocial support for refugees. As their time in the camps gets longer, we are worried about dependency—we consider it in everything we do. Since we provide them only dry food, we help them to grown vegetables. We formed community kitchen garden committee in every camp. We support them with seeds, farming tools and technical help, especially in organic farming techniques. We ask and discuss with them and the locals here what kind of vegetable they want to grow and what is good to grow in accordance with the seasons. Then, we support it.
Q: What are the refugees’ feelings at the moment?
A: Since the peace talks happened nearby in Laiza and Myitkyina [in October and November], the news is getting better. In their minds, they think ‘We can go back soon.’ So, some ask ‘When can we go back?’ We have to explain to them the situation and why they can’t go back yet.
Most people from here do animal husbandry, farming, and gardening. Three men tried to go back home to check on their cows. Two died stepping on landmines on the way. We told them that the international community has a duty to help them but they also have responsibility not to hurry back. The two governments—the KIO and Burmese government—also have a responsibility to clear up the landmines.
In their villages, the Burmese military has bases. We don’t allow them to go back. Some try to go back and take a look at their houses but step on mines. It has happened three or four times.
Q: Fighting between the KIA and the Burma Army is still going, even while there are ceasefire talks. What is your opinion about that?
A: I think the Burmese military’s role is important. Peace will still be far away if they don’t have the will to reform. [Burma President] Thein Sein and the MPC [the Myanmar Peace Center] are doing as much as they can, but on the ground level, human rights abuses are happening.
If the commander-in-chief himself is not involved in peace process, peace will still be far away. The KIO and other ethnic armed groups are enthusiastically working for this. If the army doesn’t have the will, peace will still be far away.