Refugee Month 2020: Kachin Refugees

Featured Image: Namti IDP camp, Kachin State, northern Burma, BNI Online

In light of June being Refugee Awareness Month with World Refugee Day on June 20th, the US Campaign for Burma would like to highlight the history of refugees and internally displaced peoples in the various states of Burma. This installment will cover Kachin state, following our installments on Arakan state and Chin state

The Kachin, a predominantly Christian minority group, reside in Kachin state that borders China in northern Burma. While the Kachin have lived on this land for centuries, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was formed to defend Kachin land and pushback against the Burma Army’s violent and deliberate inciting of violence. Due to armed conflict between the KIA and Burma Army, as provoked by the Burma Army, many Kachin have been forcibly displaced from their homes or fled the country in hopes of a safer space. Although the Kachin do experience discrimination as a Christian minority in a predominately Buddhist country, converting to Buddhism would not prevent them from becoming refugees or IDPs as the Burma Army pursues indiscriminate attacks against all ethnic groups, Buddhist or otherwise.

IDP sites in Kachin and northern Shan states, OCHA

Renewed fighting between the KIA and Burma Army began in 2011, when a seventeen-year ceasefire broke. Estimates state that this conflict has amounted to over 120,00 refugees from Kachin and northern Shan states, with 50,000 in government-controlled areas and 70,000 in the KIA controlled-area. Armed conflict in Kachin state causes unsafe conditions for Kachin- landmines, stray gunfire, arson, and other human rights abuses all pose a threat to the livelihoods of established Kachin villages and towns. As recently as March 2020, two Kachin IDPs were injured after accidentally stepping on a landmine. However, less tangible abuses are also prevalent in Kachin state: a government-imposed internet shut down has left seven townships in Kachin state without internet connection, causing students pursuing online learning in light of COVID-19 to no longer have access. No internet also means a lack of information and news sources during a time when civilian safety from the Burma Army and the ongoing global pandemic is imperative. 


Kachin IDPs shelter at a KBC church in Tanai town after fleeing conflict in the nearby mining areas, Lawi Weng/The Irrawaddy

In addition to the common abuse and violence experienced by Kachin IDPs, many refugees and IDPs are forced to reside in different variations of shelter- some are in camps built by the state while others are crammed in churches, for instance, the Kachin Baptist Church and the Roman Catholic Church in Mogaung Township, which houses over 1,000 IDPs in total. The life of Kachin refugees and IDPs commonly includes overly crowded and under-resourced camps where living conditions have gradually dwindled over time due to donor burnout after 9+ years of fighting in Kachin state. For instance, in early 2012, each Kachin in IDP camps along the Burma-China border was able to receive a ration of rice, cooking oil, beans, salt, and K7000 (4.98 US Dollars) per month, but the World Food Program cut back on this assistance in 2017 by excluding what they deemed “able-bodied” refugees from receiving food and other support. Kachin women in particular face the constant fear of being trafficked into China to be sold as “brides” across the border- traffickers commonly prey on IDPs and refugees who are desperate for work and already residing on the Burma-China border. In 2017, the Myanmar Human Rights Commission told Human Rights Watch that they had data on 226 trafficked women and girls in 2017, however many estimate that this number is growing as the conflict in Kachin state continues. 

Although the Burma Army’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians are the main reason for Kachin displacement, development projects in Kachin state also threaten the Kachin’s stability. The Myitsone dam project, a development backed by China, threatens Kachin peoples’ access to clean water, irrigation for the cultivation of crops, and can strip civilians of their land rights and cause them to become forcibly displaced. Foreign investors crossed paths with Kachin IDPs again when, in January 2020, Japan announced the launch of an aid program to help Kachin IDPs in northern Burma. However, Japan’s motivation for this aid is to one-up China as the two fight for diplomatic and economic influence with the Burmese government. The plight of Kachin IDPs should not be used as a geopolitical tactic and should serve as a reminder of the vast amounts of aid needed that the Burmese government continues to ignore and fails to provide. 

Ethnic Rawang villager Ah Ning, 70, looks after her grandchildren in a tent at Ka Bu Dam camp Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar. Ning is displaced and lives in the tent, provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR/Paul Vrieze

The ninth anniversary of renewed fighting between the KIA and Burma Army falls on June 9. The US Campaign for Burma calls upon all civilians, grassroots organizations, and the US government to do more to educate themselves and raise awareness for the plight of Kachin IDPs and refugees in Burma, in addition to the nation’s several other ethnic groups. 

For more information on conflict and IDPs in Kachin State, click here to access USCB’s Crowd Map and read articles from each state. The USCB will also be holding a virtual event with speakers from the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand and Karen Peace Support Network on June 20th at 1 PM EST- mark your calendars and look out for future details. 


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