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For the past five years, the people of Kachin – a large state in northern Myanmar, home to 1.7 million people – have been racked by conflict. Over 100,000 have had to flee their homes, seeking sanctuary in the many camps that dot the landscape.
This journey into displacement has brought terror, poverty, desperation and anger. Many people forced from their villages have lost their homes, their farms, their valuable few animals.
Today, they sit in crowded conditions, supported by food aid, often flooded during monsoon season, thinking of a better time when they lived on their farms many miles away.
Even in the midst of the twists and changes in the conflict, some have chosen to make the journey out of the camps and return to the place they know as home.
A small community from a village called Nam Zaw Yang are one such community. Of the 52 households from this community, 10 of them have decided to leave the squalid safety of camp life and set up again in their home village.
And as they have made the journey home after years of camp life, a second attack on them has started.
Sitting in a small bamboo hut, as tea boils on the open fire, they speak of this second attack on them. Their land has been seized. Where they once farmed, a banana plantation now sits on 600 acres, dominating the landscape and dominating their future prospects.
This was their land. Their trees and plants and crops grew here. Their place of worship and place of education stood here. They buried their dead on this land. And it provided the water and soil that sustained life.
Today, their land is covered by a banana plantation, their school abandoned and forlorn, their water source poisoned by the chemical run off from the plantation and their graveyard hidden and lost amidst the fields of banana.
They speak slowly but with anger of how the plantation now sucks much of the water from the area, poisoning the fish they used to catch in the streams and even bringing death to the water buffalo that are so essential for keeping their rice paddies ploughed and productive. They talk about how their rice plants now turn black and decayed as a result of the chemical flow off from the banana plantation nearby. They reflect on the ending of their rural way of life.
As I walk around the plantation listening to quiet voices, I can see how this place has changed so horribly. This land is now owned by a Chinese businessman. The bananas produced will end up in markets in China, bringing wealth to a small number of people. The poor will be pitted against one another as desperate migrants from Southern Myanmar work the long plantation hours and will stand in the front line if this abuse of a community spills over into violence.
We see this too often in our work as Trócaire. The areas and local conditions may be different but the common features – land grabs, illegal land acquisitions, mining concessions and forced displacement – are the same. These features are the result of the overt and brutal use of power. It comes in different forms, but its intention is always the same: to suppress dissent and ensure the benefits accrue to the few at the expense of the many.
And as always, it is infused with a belief that power becomes alive in two ways – either from the gun or from the dollar.
But sitting here in this hut with its thatch roof and smell of tea poured in simple cups fashioned from bamboo, one definite truth hangs in the air: real power comes from within. As long as this community bonds together, strive as one and believe in the power of perseverance and in the reality of truth, they have a chance.
The test for them is that they will have to do this under sustained pressure. And the nearer they get to success, the more the pressure applied.
For us as Trócaire, our work is to build a global movement of people who believe in and work for justice. It is about bringing people together to bind their centres of power to effect real and lasting change. It is about linking the actions of these rural farmers driven from lands their forefathers and foremothers held for generations with the actions of those in Ireland who deeply care.
In essence it is about building a bridge of support, stretching across thousands of miles, from Ireland to Myanmar, ensuring that these rural communities have a fighting chance.
Through local partner organisations, Trócaire is supporting this community to raise awareness of their legal entitlements, to document complaints, and to organise and mobilise in defence of their land.
There was not much they could do about the war that drove them into the camps.
This new war on their land however is one they can do something about. And sitting looking at the determined lines in their solemn faces, it’s clear they will.
By Sean Farrell, Director of International Division