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Burma's brutal reality behind the benign face of reform
Published on:Tuesday, January 24, 2012 - 17:30
Phil Thornton reporting from Kachin state
While the international community and Asean reward Burma’s government for its cautious reforms, a conflict in the Kachin area in the north has displaced nearly 60,000 people.
There have been widespread allegations that the Burmese army is looting, burning and destroying village farms and forcing thousands of Kachin civilians out of their villages. More than 7,000 have fled across the border to China but 50,000 more are living in squalid makeshift camps in Burma.
Ure Seng Raw, a rice farmer, sits on a rough bench in the small bamboo hut she now calls home at Je Yang Hka camp. “The Burmese army shelled our village on June 15. We were scared. We could see unexploded shells around the houses. We were worried the soldiers would take us as porters and rape our daughters.”
Ure Seng has good reason to be worried. In June and July 2010 the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand documented the rape of 32 women and girls in Kachin State by the Burmese army _ 13 of them were killed.
Ure Seng shares the eight-metre by six-metre hut with another family also forced from their home when the Burmese army attacked their village.
The Je Yang Hka camp houses 4,991 people displaced from 34 villages in the surrounding area. At the time of writing there were a total of 19 camps housing an estimated 46,000 people forced from their villages when fighting started between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in June this year.
A good life gone forever
Ure Seng and her husband owned land, an orange plantation and had earned enough money to send their kids to school. “We had peace for many years. We’re rice farmers and had a 2.43 hectare orange plantation. We were making money. We could afford to send our kids away to school. Life was good for us.” And now she’s lost everything her family worked for more than 20 years to secure.
“The Burmese army bombed our village. We took nothing except what we could carry. It took us two days to get here. At night we slept in the open, it was cold. Old people, babies and pregnant women, it was hard for them.”
Ure Seng explains how the forced move has taken its toll on her and especially her husband.
“It’s now our harvest time, our rice will be eaten by wild animals. Soldiers will steal our oranges. We’ve lost our five cows, six pigs, chickens and vegetable garden. Since coming here my husband has been sick several times - it hurts him that he has lost everything we’ve worked for.”
Ure Seng disputes the Burmese government’s statements that its reforms are changing the country for the better.
“There may be changes at an upper level [of society], but for ordinary people there is no change, we are still suffering _ how can I believe their words?”
Can't cope with the need
Maran Zau Seng is the medical officer at Hpum Lum Yang Camp which currently houses some thousand IDP’s (internally displaced people).
Pointing to a matrix neatly drawn on a whiteboard that details and records the camp’s ailments, he explains the work he and his staff of five have carried out since June.
“We have treated 668 cases of extreme diarrhoea, 113 people with dysentery, 89 serious respiratory cases, 12 people with malaria, 41 skin infections, 34 eye infections, 25 trauma cases and 1,281 people with influenza. Serious cases we can’t treat here we send to the hospital in Laiza.”
“People are stressed. They’ve been through a lot, they have lost their homes and left all their possessions behind. It’s now the harvest season, but they can’t bring it in.”
A refugee town
Laiza, the headquarters of the KIA, has the feel of a town under siege. Four basic camps have been set up in community halls, disused markets and cultural parks to house the increasing number of displaced people. 17 camps are strung around the surrounding hills.
La Rip, coordinator for a local NGO helping the IDP’s says there are now 46,000 people in makeshift camps and the numbers are growing daily says they’re having a hard time coping.
“We desperately need international assistance. Reaching all the displaced is difficult. The Shwegu area in the Bhamo district is under the control of the Burmese army - that makes it impossible to get access to the 1,000 people hiding in the jungle. It’s a desperate situation, people need medical help, food, blankets, mosquito nets and mats. They also need buckets, water containers, pots and pans, machetes and knives.”
Around Laiza, KIA soldiers ride out on motorcycles and in the back of pickup trucks, man guardposts and snipers stake out the higher buildings. On side streets, scores of one-room sewing shops are non-stop making uniforms for the Kachin Army.
Up several flights of stairs in the heavily fortified Laiza Hotel, Gen Gun Maw, the vice-chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army swipes his arm at recent accusations of Burmese Information Minister Kyaw San that the Kachin are terrorists.
He points to the maps covering the walls: “Have a look. You’ll see the names of destroyed villages next to the names of the Burmese army battalions that did the destruction. Since our foundation we [the KIA] have not used terrorist acts. The definition of a terrorist is someone who targets unarmed civilians. This government and its army operations could be classified as terrorists. I wouldn’t say all the Burmese army act as terrorists, but you could say many of its battalions in Kachin State are out of control.”
Gen Gun Maw says the responsibility for how the Burmese army conducts its battle plan lies with the higher echelons of its military.
“We had a 17-year ceasefire with them that they refused to ratify in writing. Today we are asking for a signed agreement and again they refuse to sign. Why?”
“Ceasefire agreements are not peace. The government has used various ceasefire agreements with ethnic groups to their own advantage, mainly to claim that a particular ethnic area is now peaceful,” says Gen Gun Maw.
Gen Gun Maw estimates that the KIO has met with the government three times since the armed conflict started in June in an effort to stop the war. None of the meetings were successful. Despite talks between the Burma government representatives and KIO officials in then China Burma border town of Ruili reports of fighting between the two opposing sides continue.