The Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) has called on the international community to increase pressure on the Burmese government to end ethnic conflict in the Shan and Kachin States, as the estimated number of people displaced by the fighting continues to rise.
In a press release issued on 9 June, KWAT levels accusations of human rights abuses at the Burmese military, including the rape and murder of two Kachin volunteer teachers, and the attempted rape of a 73-year-old woman earlier in 2015.
DVB’s Melanie Keyte sat down with Moon Nay Li and Shirley Seng from the women’s organisation to talk about the ongoing conflict in Burma’s northern states and the difficulties facing Kachin women.
Q. Ethnic armed group leaders agreed in Law Khee La that women should make up 30 percent of the ethnic representation team attempting to negotiate a nationwide ceasefire with the government. How significant is this agreement?
Shirley: We’ll start with this 30 percent, then in the future maybe we will lobby and advocate for more women to be included.
Moon: Ethnic leaders agreeing on a 30 percent quota of women’s participation is a really good opportunity for our women to be involved in the decision-making. However, we will have to wait and see as to whether this agreement will be implemented.
Q. You estimated in your press release today that 100, 000 people have been displaced by the recent fighting. Are women disproportionally affected? And what happens to them after they flee their homes?
M: In the Kokang region, the internally displaced persons [IDPs] are mostly women and children. Some flee across the border to China, and they find themselves in a very difficult situation. Most go to IDP camps, where they also face many difficulties, especially the pregnant women. But now we are seeing international donors withdrawing and cutting funding to the Kachin IDP camps.
Q. Why are the international donors cutting funding from the camps?
M: I think it’s because the government has been talking a lot about the peace process, and talking very positively about ceasefires. So, all the international donors are listening to this, and they think they don’t need to support the displacement camps anymore, because the government has agreed on a ceasefire with the Kachin. But realistically, the conflict and the human rights abuses are ongoing.
These women are not secure: their villages, their churches, their farms, are all occupied by the Burmese military. They are scared to go home, even though they face so many difficulties in the camps where they don’t have enough food or any medicine. And now that the rainy season has started, the camps have been flooding but they can’t go home.
Q. So what do they do when they can’t go home, and the IDP camps are no longer receiving funding?
M: Some come into Thailand, but because they can’t speak Thai and don’t have documents, they face a lot of difficulties. Some travel to Malaysia, but they have the same problems. Many Kachin women and girls end up being trafficked into China, where they are forced to marry Chinese men.
S: Most try not to go to different countries, but choose to keep living in the IDP camps.
Q. I understand KWAT run anti-trafficking programmes to help Kachin women who have been victims of trafficking. Could you tell me a little about these programmes?
M: Yes, we began our anti-trafficking programme in 2005, and since then we have been providing assistance to victims of trafficking. We have a crisis support centre, and a safe house for the survivors. Some trafficking survivors don’t want to go back to their home villages, because they may face discrimination for being raped or married to another man. So they can stay in our safe house, where we give them counselling, educate them about women’s rights and other important issues, and provide encouragement for them to rebuild their lives.
Q. Moving back to the conflict in Kachin, how effective do you think pressure from the international community will be in bringing an end to the fighting and human rights abuses in the villages?
M: If the international community seriously puts pressure on our government to stop the conflict, [Naypyidaw] will have to be more transparent in the peace process, and consider the people’s needs and wants. Then maybe we can solve the conflict, a conflict which has been going on in my country for over 60 years. But we’re not just talking about a ceasefire agreement where the government pressures the ethnic groups to put a signature on paper. We don’t like these ‘agreements’, we have already experienced these in Kachin – [the Kachin Independence Organisation] has already signed a ceasefire agreement, then the government breaks the agreement, then we see fighting again, then we are signing again. We don’t want to see this again, we want real concrete action on the peace process.
Q. What difficulties do Kachin women currently face in their hometowns?
M: Currently, the biggest problem is the conflict. Another problem they face comes from the development projects, such as the construction of dams or mining, where the companies confiscate the land from the villagers and move them away from their homes.
S: Many women also don’t have the freedom of movement around Kachin State. When they travel, they may be raped, killed or tortured. The men also can’t move freely because they might be taken by the army and forced to work as porters.
M: And then there is the drug problem. Since the 1994 ceasefire agreement, the drug crisis has been increasing. Government forces have been producing opium in the Kachin region, and so we can’t outlaw the drug in our area. How can we solve the problem of drug addiction when it’s coming from those involved in parliament? This affects women badly, because when you have a father who is a drug addict, or a husband or a son who is an addict, you have to go out and earn money while also looking after the children. For many women in Kachin, it’s a daily struggle for survival.
Q. Is there anything either of you would like to add?
M: Ours is a very rich country; everybody knows this. In the Kachin region, we are very rich in natural resources, but our people are not benefitting. Instead, they are forced to move to other areas, forced to become migrants and sometimes trafficked to other countries. This is what is happening to our local people, and this is why we are very sad about the whole situation. And this is why, when the government is talking about a nationwide ceasefire and peace processes, we don’t believe they are sincere in their promises. They say things like, ‘No, we are not attacking ethnic people’, but they keep sending soldiers to Kachin and northern Shan States. So how can we believe them? The government has to take action, and follow up on their promises with the ethnic leaders. And maybe then, we can trust them.