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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.

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Government leaders in China’s Yunnan Province began pressuring the KIO to retrieve the refugees beginning in January, according to relief director Seng Li. After pushing back for months, KIO officials conceded to China’s demands, and Kachin refugees in China were left with few options: find a way to pay for housing in China, move to camps on the Kachin side, or risk returning to their villages.

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Mr. Seng Li was the first to greet the inaugural group returning from China. Around 500 refugees arrived on a caravan of pastel buses to the mountainous Kachin border town of Lana Zup Ja, a once thriving hamlet studded with Chinese casino hotels. Now the hotels sit abandoned along streets lined with ramshackle storefronts.

As they step off buses and onto Kachin lands in Myanmar for the first time in many months, the refugees are given snacks and shots of glucose water from volunteers to revive them from the journey. Despite being underfunded, local groups such as the Kachin Baptist Church and WPN, or “Light of the People,” are working to improve conditions in the camps set up in Myanmar. 

“Don’t worry, this is our land,” Seng Li tells the gathered crowd. “The old camp was not your land. You are free here.”

A pastor reads a passage from the Bible to encourage the mostly Christian Kachins – not from Exodus, but from Psalms. “I have suffered much; preserve my life, Lord, according to your word…. Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.”

Home, an abandoned hotel

But as people began “checking in” to their rooms in one abandoned hotel – their home until the KIO finds the funds to build shelters – sounds of gentle sobbing haunt the hallways. The rooms had been cleared of dilapidated furniture to make space for their belongings, yet most carried with them only a few rice sacks full of clothing and blankets, items they had accumulated since escaping their villages. New quarters now consist of chipped concrete floors surrounded by blackened cobwebs.

More than 1,000 displaced residents already inhabit a nearby building in the camp, and with the new arrivals some officials are concerned that conditions may become dire. Food and medicine shortages are the most immediate concerns. 

“Sometimes people die because we don’t have the right kinds of medicine,” says John Myo Aung San, the doctor serving the camp. To accommodate the new arrivals, they are adding beds to the clinic and constructing a new children’s surgery room by cordoning off a corner of the room with bedsheets.

The schools are also adding desks to make room for new students, but teacher shortages have caused them to cut the school day in half.

“If they can’t go to school or are lacking in their education, that’s going to hurt our future,” said KIO vice chief of staff Gen. Gun Maw.

Still afraid to return

In the face of desperate conditions, refugees are still fearful of returning home. Since fighting broke out in June 2011, Myanmar's Army has attacked and pillaged Kachin villages and tortured, raped, and murdered civilians. According to recent estimates, 456 Kachin refugees have chosen to remain in China and 2,056 have risked the return to their villages.

Despite a long history of warfare in the region, elder residents claim that this bout of fighting has been the most difficult for civilians.

“Burmese soldiers assume that every male is a KIO soldier,” says Marip Tu, a former soldier. “They arrest and torture them. It’s much more difficult now. Before the last cease-fire we would hide in the jungle for a few days, then return to our village.” 

He bends over to help his wife into bed, a plywood frame with only a thin mat for cushion. Lahtaw Nang Grawng wears flannel pajamas to keep her thin body warm in the 90-degree afternoon heat. “I am miserable here,” she says. “I want to go home.”

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