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When can we go home? – meeting the displaced in northern Myanmar

Trócaire’s John Smith shares his recent experiences visiting camps for people displaced by conflict in Kachin State, Myanmar. 

John Smith Trócaire with a women's group working on land issues in Kachin State, northern Myanmar

Caption: John Smith with a women’s group working on land issues in Kachin State, northern Myanmar

The men around me are mostly wearing jumpers.

I am in a t-shirt and it is quite hot. I’m sweating.

The whiteboard above me to the left is full of numbers. 67 individuals from one village, 52 from another. The list of the villages runs all the way down the board. There must be over 20 villages represented on the list. 

In the total column on the bottom right one can establish how many people are living here in St Joseph Maina camp.

1,234 individuals are packed here into this IDP (Internally displaced people) camp. 

The group in front of us, made up or around 10 men and 3 women, speak about life at the camp. 

Trócaire’s work here is focused on water, sanitation and hygiene. All of these issues are addressed, and it is clear the impact this work is having. The group is well organised. They have a youth representative, a security representative, and much more. 

This reflects our work on building the capacity of the people living in these camps. 

After some further discussion, Birke Herzbruch, Trócaire’s Myanmar Country Director, asks whether any of the camp committee want to ask us any questions. 

One of the men, who, despite the heat is wearing a woolly hat and a warm jacket with long sleeves asks “When will we be able to go home?”

Over the course of the previous two days I have heard again and again that people just want peace, and to be able to return home. 

They want to return to their farms. They want to leave these cramped and often dangerous camps, where some have been for four years now. 

But this question was different. This was not just an aspiration to leave the camp. This question was built upon trust. The trust in that man’s eyes as he asked Birke when he could leave has stayed with me. But what are the chances of him returning home?

In 2011 the conflict again erupted in Kachin State, in the north of Myanmar, a country of 51 million people, up to 70% of who are estimated to live by agriculture. 

But this conflict is not simply an ethnic conflict, as some would present it. 

What first began as a struggle for independence, or at least greater autonomy for the region and its people, has now turned into a war economy. 

The jade mining business sets the military against the KIA/KIO (Kachin Independence Army), and is a significant driver of the conflict. 

A recent report estimated that in 2014 the Myanmar jade trade was worth $31billion, almost 50% of the GDP of the country. 

But, of course, the local Kachin farmers, many of who make up the over 100,000 of people living in IDP camps, see little of this abundance. 

Even when these farmers can return home, their land is often not there waiting for them. Jade mines, banana plantations, logging and land confiscation are just some of the ways in which land has been misappropriated. 

Some land laws go back to 19th-century British Imperial India rule, and often there is little recompense for farmers. Expectations are high that the new Land Use Policy will provide redemption.

The camps are littered around Myitkyina (the capital of Kachin State), a city 777 miles to the north of Yangon. 

Daw Lthum (63) San, Roi Sing (52), Daw Lu Ja (37), Daw Lu Ra (40)

Right to left: Daw Lthum (63) San, Roi Sing (52), Daw Lu Ja (37), and Daw Lu Ra (40) at Nawng Pong

Another camp we visited, Nawng Pong, had 327 registered as living there. 

About 15 of the women living in the camp met with us in what appeared to be a room that otherwise would have housed the children for school. An airy space lent itself to these passionate and articulate women as they told us about their life in the camp.

The new latrines had made a big difference, and health had improved there, though their food rations were not enough. 

Despite that, the air appeared light with a sense of hope. Hope that the recently elected NLD (National League for Democracy) and their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, could bring a lasting peace and return them home. 

Nonetheless, a walk around the camp, and some of the women going about their daily tasks were more circumspect. A sadness was evident. Over four years living in a camp with cramped living spaces and little by way of opportunity to grow crops and provide a livelihood; these circumstances conspired to demonstrate that, even amidst the resilience and hope of these women, life was extremely difficult. And where were the men? Many, they told us, had left for the jade mines.

The man with the trusting eyes had left his question linger in the air. It was a question that in a sense could not be answered. 

Birke addressed it nonetheless. We are hopeful she tells the man. Some families are already returning home. But we don’t know when everyone can go home. Nevertheless, she goes on, we will stay with you. Trócaire will help you to provide for yourself and your families in this camp, and when it is time to go home, we will help you and your families to return to a normal life. When it comes to rebuilding your livelihoods, we will stay with you. Trócaire is here for the long term.

For five years I travelled to schools around Ireland talking about Trócaire’s work. I spoke with teachers and students about how we work through partners, about how we respond to emergencies, and when the emergency is over, we stay with communities to help them rebuild their lives. I said this many times. 

But on this day, in St. Joseph Maina camp, Kachin State in northern Myanmar, I saw grown men nod their heads in hope when our partner translated Birke’s words of reassurance. 

In this moment, I saw solidarity in a new way, a way that I will not forget.


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