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The fighting Kachin

By Brennan O’Connor

15 May 2012

Burma’s recent reforms have brought no respite for the Kachin people.
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Photographs and text by Brennan O’Connor

Photographs and text by Brennan O’Connor

Tangbau Mai San and her family had to leave behind everything they owned when they fled their village from the advancing Burmese military last June. Since then, they have been living in a temporary camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Laiza, where the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) is headquartered. Tangbau was pregnant when she and her family hitched a tractor ride to the KIA-controlled area.  Nine months later, their lives are still in shambles, and the baby is due any day.

“Since we left our home we haven’t been able to make money. Recently my husband broke his leg,” said Tangbau. They have no choice but to rely on the meager food rations provided by the Kachin Independence Organisation’s (KIO) Refugee Relief Committee (IRRC) and other Kachin community groups who manage the camps. 

A seventeen-year ceasefire between the KIO and government unravelled on 9 June 2011. The fighting erupted three years after the Burmese government created the country’s 2008 constitution, which stipulates that all ceasefire groups must become government border guard forces, essentially amalgamating them into the Burmese military.

Since the onset of the conflict, the Burmese army has been accused of various human rights abuses against the Kachin, including raping hundreds of women. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “Burmese armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on [Kachin] civilians, using forced labour and pillaging villages.” The organisation estimates that there are approximately 75,000 Kachin IDPs in Kachin state and across the border in China.

The government wants to control the country’s abundant natural resources, many of which are located in contested areas controlled by the ceasefire groups. Kachin state is rich in gold, jade and teak forests. There are also many Chinese-financed energy projects in the region. 

Burmese President Thein Sein has been praised by the West for his reform policies, but seems unable or unwilling to quell the fighting in Kachin state. In December 2011, he ordered the military not to attack the KIA, but there have been reports of daily clashes since. Fighting has recently increased following the cancellation of sanctions by Western governments.

Now, local organisations managing the camps are struggling to feed the growing number of displaced Kachin. They have received very little support from international humanitarian organisations. The UN visited the region only twice to distribute food rations, which fell significantly short of the needs of all the IDPs.

The future does not look very bright for Tangbau Mai San’s family and thousands of other refugees like them – mostly women and children suffering from diarrhoea, skin infections, respiratory problems and cholera, diseases which result from inadequate housing and sanitation, overcrowding and malnourishment. As their numbers continue to swell amidst fresh clashes between the KIA and Burmese army, the poor health conditions in the camps could reach epidemic levels once the rainy season starts.

~ Brennan O’Connor is a Canadian photographer based on the Thai-Burma border. His forthcoming book Beyond Borders will document minorities from Burma who have been pushed off their land by the government.

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