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.

Khin Maung Win/AP
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.

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

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.

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.

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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