For more than six months in 2011, Ywe Ja refused to leave her home in Burma’s Kachin State despite heavy fighting around her village. It was where she was born, and she had built a life there as a teacher with a farmer husband and a young child.
“Then the authorities started seeing Kachins as part of the KIA (Kachin Independence Army). Business and social rivals could accuse you of having links with the KIA and the army would arrest you without any investigations,” she said.
Worried that her husband would fall prey to these suspicions and heavily pregnant with her second child, she finally left Tar Law Gyi, a village about two hours’ drive from Myitkyina, the Kachin state capital, in March 2012.
Two weeks after arriving at the St. Paul Jan Mai Hkawng camp, she gave birth.
“I never thought I’d end up staying here so long,” she said, sitting in the thatched-walled meeting room of the camp that she now helps to manage with the support of Karuna Myanmar Social Services, run by the Catholic Church. There is no more fighting in her village, but her family has not returned, fearing the continued presence of the Burmese army and land mines in the area.
For the first time since leaving her home, however, Ywe Ja is full of hope.
“I didn’t vote in the 2010 elections because I didn’t think it was going to make a difference. This time, I woke up really early to vote. I’m very happy that NLD won. I think they will prioritise the peace process,” she told Myanmar Now, referring to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy which won the 8 November elections in a landslide.
It was a sentiment echoed by other internally displaced people (IDPs) this correspondent spoke to. They are pinning their hopes on the NLD government to achieve peace and begin the process of demilitarisation that would allow them to finally go home, almost five years after fighting resumed between the army and Kachin rebels.
Fighting has displaced around 100,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan States since June 2011 after a 17-year ceasefire broke down over long-held grievances. With peace proving elusive, the displaced – in both government and rebel-controlled areas – have become disillusioned.
“The longer (the IDPs stay in these camps), the more difficult it is for them. There are no jobs nearby and there are land constraints to create your own livelihoods. Foreign aid has been reducing and because everything is up in the air, those who are helping are losing steam and the displaced are losing hope,” said Phyu Ei Aung from Metta Foundation, one of Burma’s largest non-governmental organisations that has been providing emergency assistance since 2011.
Violence against women is also rife, with the majority of cases being husbands taking out their frustration over the situation on their wives, she added. Metta documented 583 cases in 41 camps in the 15 months between April 2014 and March 2015.
It is little wonder then that many have been galvanised by the election results, where NLD’s strong showing in ethnic states surprised observers. In Kachin, it won 22 out of 30 elected seats for the two houses of parliament and more than half of the state legislature, giving it a strong mandate to govern at both local and national levels.
“All the displaced are looking forward to the new government to create (a country) where everyone is able to live happily and peacefully regardless of their race and religion,” said Ja Khun Ya, a 40-year-old from the same village as Ywe Ja.
Since fighting resumed, the IDPs have been languishing in small, hastily-built shelters that flood in monsoon and become unbearably hot in the summer, facing dwindling aid support and an uncertain future.
The United Nations’ World Food Programme, which provides food assistance to Kachin IDPs, told Myanmar Now it is facing a $51 million shortfall. The organisation has already started to replace food assistance with cash to IDPs in places with access to markets, but said this is not directly linked to the shortfall.
The situation is even more dire for those who are outside of government-controlled areas due to their remote locations and even more scarce aid.
Many fear the worst is yet to come.
“In the camp, we don’t have any income, only expenses,” Lahtaw Khun Ya, also 40, said. “I have eight children and my husband was diagnosed with diabetes last year so he cannot do manual labour. But he went with some friends for a labourer job today,” she added.
The IDPs say they are willing to work, but jobs are few and far between. They say most end up working in construction sites for a daily wage of around $2.30 for women and $4.70 for men, sometimes much less.
“The employers sometimes pay us less. They would say, ‘You are receiving support from aid agencies so 2,000 kyats ($1.50) is enough.’ We don’t have a choice,” Ja Khun Ya said.
In the bigger Zi Un camp, where 710 people are supported mainly by the Kachin Baptist Convention, dozens of women make money sewing traditional Kachin headgear, which allows them to stay close to their children. It is a time-consuming task, taking about 40 to 50 minutes to earn 100 kyats ($0.08) for each headpiece.
Young men, meanwhile, have dropped out of schools to find jobs.
Twenty-year-old Zau Phan says he would like the opportunity to finish high school. After failing his 10th standard exam last year, he now works as a tenant farmer in another town. He was one of the few IDPs who did not vote.
“I was away and I’m not interested in politics, but yeah, I’m hoping for change. But it’s difficult to guess what would happen,” he said.
Aid workers, however, warn against setting too high an expectation.
“I don’t think we will see any drastic changes for a year or two. Even if the IDPs can go back to their villages because the political situation is now good, we would still need to assist them so they can go back to making a living like they did before the fighting,” Metta’s Ei Phyu Aung said.
Lu San, a 39-year-old mother of four who used to run a small store, said she went through the lengthy bureaucratic process to gain approvals to briefly go back to her village across the river from Myitkyina a few months after fleeing. They had left the shop and hundreds of baskets of paddy.
“There was nothing left. All the valuable stuff had been looted. I heard later the army took them,” she said, her voice rising at the memory.
Mental scars will also need to be healed. Many lost friends and families, and almost everyone lost their possessions. They have also heard tales of neighbours and fellow villagers being tortured, maimed and killed, mainly by the Burmese army, fueling fear and hatred as well as distrust among the different ethnic groups that make up these villages.
Born in 1942, Hkun Baw La says he has heard and seen what he said were atrocities committed by the military government towards ethnic minorities in the 1960s. Yet ordinary citizens forged lasting friendships and in his village, home to Shan, Kachin and Bamar, a Christian church and a Buddhist monastery stood side-by-side before the fighting, he said.
Now there are people’s militias in many villages, including Hkun Baw’s, where the Shan and Bamar received weapons from the government to protect themselves against the KIA, the IDPs said.
Lu San has a plea for the NLD and the political leaders who are currently in Burma’s grandiose capital Naypyidaw for a five-day peace conference.
“Please withdraw the troops as soon as possible, and please prioritise de-mining and sending us back. We are yearning to go home.”