Myanmar’s Displaced Find New Voice

Bawk Nu Awng hasn’t been home since 2011. All three of the villages where she spent her childhood have been destroyed. “War hit wherever my family lived,” she said. “I feel like it is my responsibility to engage in all matters related to peace.” Now aged 21, Bawk Nu Awng, from Kachin in Myanmar, has emerged as a spokesperson among youth displaced by conflict. When Aung San Suu Kyi took power in 2016, her party, the National League for Democracy, pledged to prioritise ending the conflict in Myanmar. Yet the country’s various ethnic groups continue to fight for increased federal autonomy. In Rakhine state, conflict is escalating between Myanmar’s military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the rebel Arakan Army. Nationwide, an estimated 241,000 people like Bawk Nu Awng remain in camps, including more than 97,000 in Kachin state. Camps for internally displaced people are the most visible evidence of Myanmar’s ongoing strife. With elections coming up next year, political momentum to send displaced people home has accelerated.

Kachin, which shares a border with China’s Yunnan province, is a strategic area for China’s belt and road initiative, a global development strategy that includes a multi-billion pound China-Myanmar economic corridor. In March, Yunnan officials met with the influential Kachin Baptist Convention; support for returns and a peace agreement was encouraged, with the Chinese contingent suggesting stability could bring investment and development. In December, the Tatmadaw offered a short unilateral ceasefire, since extended to 31 August, to three ethnic armies in northern Myanmar including the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). Shortly after the announcement, the first organised returns occurred, the Tatmadaw accompanying a group of displaced people back to the village of Nam San Yang, despite having deactivated land mines only weeks before. Talks have since been held between the government and the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee, a group headed by church leaders that mediate on returns. No displaced people have been included in the meetings. A UN survey of 1,123 IDP households in Kachin found that while 65% had a long-term intention to return home, only 5% felt they could. Security fears were cited as the main reason.

In early June, long-time activist Lum Zawng, 30, brought together 43 young displaced people in the state capital, Myitkyina, to discuss their perspective on returns. Nawng Lat, 31, who was at that meeting alongside Bawk Nu Awng, said, “We urgently had to form a group to think deeply about our returns and raise our voice.” The group developed a statement, published on Facebook, stating that returns should only happen when safety and dignity could be assured, and when people have been consulted and are free to decide when to return without pressure or force being applied. It also stated that displaced people should not be used for political, economic or social advantage. Nawng Lat, who is from Nam San Yang village, was not part of the group that returned. He is eager to go home, but only when conditions are right. When fighting resumed eight years ago, he never imagined living in a camp for so long. “My first thought was that the war would last a few months,” he says. “After about three years, everything became unsure. I wondered why it was happening, why we couldn’t go back.” Now he is among more than 38,000 displaced people living in areas outside the government’s jurisdiction. With limited access to higher education and jobs, many young people leave for China in search of livelihoods, where they are vulnerable to trafficking and abuse. “The longer we stay in IDP camps, the more problems we face,” he says. “I don’t want returns to happen under pressure. I’m not saying we don’t want to go back; actually, we are eager to back as soon as possible. It’s been eight years since we have been displaced and we have lost so many things related to our education and development. We will only return after we have a security guarantee.” Bawk Nu Awng wants a guarantee that landmines have been cleared. “Currently, it is like they want us to stay in a house that is not fully built. When it rains, it will leak. Only after they have fully built the house should we stay in it. There needs to be trust. “I would like both of the militaries [Tatmadaw and KIA] to clear the landmines that are in our land, and I only want to go back after we have official peace.”

In June, the activists staged a public drama performance to commemorate the war’s eighth anniversary. Pau Lu and fellow organiser Seng Nu Pan informed the authorities yet, moments before the performance, police turned up claiming that extra permissions were required. The event was moved and went ahead, but Pau Lu and Seng Nu Pan were charged with holding an unauthorised protest. They now face a maximum three-month prison sentence in the ongoing case. The incident is one of several in which activists have faced criminal charges. In April last year, Lum Zawng and fellow activists Zau Jat and Nang Pu received a six-month prison sentence for defaming the Tatmadaw by leading a demonstration demanding safe passage and humanitarian access to 2,000 villagers trapped during a period of escalated fighting. Bawk Nu Awng says fear makes people reluctant to act, “Some are afraid of engaging in politics … My parents don’t want me to participate because they are afraid I will get shot or arrested.” Released during an annual presidential amnesty, Lum Zawng said arresting activists serves as a “psychological threat.” Pau Lu said they would not back down. “Even if [Seng Nu Pan and I] get arrested, the youth won’t stop. We have plenty of people who can step up in our place.” Seng Nu Pan says arrests only “push us to do more. We have to practise our freedom of expression. If we don’t express what is happening, [no one will] know,” says Lum Zawng. “The young generation can change … We’re not afraid to lead a movement.”

Credits: Emily Fishbein and Nhkum La Nu for The Guardian, 1 August 2019.