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Myanmar's next hurdle: Kachin refugees returning from China

Ethnic violence forced thousands of Kachins to flee to China. Human rights activists now say China is exacerbating the situation – and threatening reforms – by kicking them out.

By J.K. NickellContributor / September 21, 2012

Participants gather to mark the International Day of Peace in Yangon, Myanmar, Friday, Sept. 21. They pray for a cease-fire in the long-running ethnic insurgency in their Kachin State.

Khin Maung Win/AP

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Lana Zup Ja, Myanmar

It was 2:00 a.m., nearly one year ago, when Lahpai Nang Bawk last saw her home.

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Fearing for her life, she fled her Kachin village in northern Myanmar (Burma) where Myanmar’s Army and the Kachin Independence Army are locked in a bloody battle for Kachin autonomy. Ms. Lahpai Nang Bawk trekked through the jungle by cover of night along with 200 others to avoid an approaching firefight.

“Don’t cry,” she remembers one mother warning her children. “If you cry, Burmese soldiers will catch us.”

When Lahpai Nang Bawk emerged from the jungle with nothing more than the clothes on her back, she was so frightened that she hitched a ride across the border into China. She settled in a makeshift refugee camp in December, where, at first, Chinese officials arrived daily to destroy their shelters.

“They came every day, but we refused to leave,” she says.

But nine months later, in late August, Lahpai Nang Bawk was one of more than 5,000 Kachin refugees who were forced by China to return to their war-torn homeland, she says.

The Kachin Independence Army has been at war with Myanmar's Army since June 2011 when fighting erupted near a hydropower dam in Kachin State, ending a 17-year cease-fire between the two sides and displacing more than 75,000 Kachin civilians, many of them seeking refuge across the border in China.

Now, ethnic violence in Myanmar threatens to disrupt recent democratic reforms after decades of rule by a harsh military junta. Human rights activists say China is exacerbating the situation by forcing refugees to return to Myanmar.

China has denied expelling Kachin refugees, despite accusations from Human Rights Watch, the United Nations refugee agency, and those flooding across the border into Kachin State.

Chinese authorities have also ignored repeated requests from the UN to assist Kachin refugees on the Chinese side of the border, according to refugees and human rights workers.  

“Rather than honoring international law on refugees, the Chinese government seems to want to rewrite the rules,” says Bill Frelick, refugees program director for Human Rights Watch.

“They [Chinese] claim they are worried about disease, drug use among teenagers, and crime in the refugee camps, so they don’t want to take responsibility,” says Seng Li, of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) relief committee. Former residents of the Chinese camps deny using drugs or committing other crimes.

'They tried to keep us from getting water'

Waje Htu San, a 31-year-old mother of two, lived in a Chinese camp for nearly a year before being forced out, she says. “Almost every day Chinese police and soldiers came to us and said, ‘Go to your home,’” she says. “They would not allow us to collect wood or vegetables in the forest. They wouldn’t allow us to walk along Chinese roads. They tried to keep us from getting water.”

Her husband, Lahpai Zau Bawk, says that Chinese officials in plainclothes would routinely destroy their makeshift homes. And witnesses said that on two occasions parents were forced to return to Kachin State across the border to bury a young child – one who had died from sickness and another from an automobile accident.

Refugees say Chinese officials strong-armed the KIO into taking the refugees back into Kachin.

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