A new exhibition opened yesterday [Saturday] in Rangoon displaying 57 photographs taken by Kachin children living in some of the camps for internally displaces persons (IDPs) now littered across Burma’s northernmost state. War between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was reignited almost five years ago following a tense ceasefire which had lasted 17 years.
The exhibition is hosted in Pansodan Scene, in Pansodan Street, and is the result of several 10-day workshops organised by InsightOut! Project at Mai Na and Shwe Zet IDP camps and Unlung Boarding School for IDP children in Mai Ja Yang. The photographs depict daily life situations in the camps, portraying both the harsh conditions the IDPs live in and their endurance.
“I think contributing to change in the country also means being able to support young people to express themselves. Democracy is not just about elections and voting, it’s also about people, including young people, being able to speak their minds,” said Debbie Stothard, the Coordinator of the Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN Burma) and one of the organisers of the workshops and the exhibition in Rangoon.
Three of the children who participated in the workshop and whose photographs are displayed in the exhibition have travelled to Rangoon for the opening as “youth ambassadors” of the IDPs in the former capital.
“I took pictures in the camps of the people doing what they used to do in their villages. I wanted to portray the Kachin people and their culture,” Zaw Hkam, one of the young IDPs who travelled to Rangoon told DVB. But, while Zaw Hkam has enjoyed his experience as a photographer, his desire is to be a singer and claims proudly that he won the second prize in a singing contest held in his camp last year.
At his 15 years, Zaw Hkam has spent almost one third of his life living in the Mai Na IDP camp, in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. He and his family hail from N-wan Kawng village, in Sadung District. On 9 June 2011, the very same day the fighting between the Burmese Army and the KIA started, he had to flee the village with his family. “We had to stay one week in the jungle to hide from the soldiers, and then we took the road to Myitkyina. My father died one week later, he had a lung disease and could not make it,” he explained.
“There are many limitations in the camp. We were free in our village and could take from the forest anything we wanted, because it was our own land. If we needed firewood, we just went to the forest and took it. But we can’t do it in the camp, because the forest nearby doesn’t belong to us,” he said.
“I hope that the new government can put an end to the war and we can live with real peace and tranquillity. We need to stop the war to go back to our homes. We need self-administration in Kachin State and to enjoy our own natural resources so we can rely on ourselves,” he said.
Zaw Hkam and the other two kids had the chance to explain their situation and their aspirations to a few politicians in Rangoon. On Friday, they met the Patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Tin Oo, and MP-elect Nay Phone Latt at the party headquarters in Rangoon and held another meeting at Pansodan Space with three elected MPs from the NLD and three representatives of the 88 Generation.
“I think it was very important for these children to understand that they are not alone, and that other IDP children are not alone. I think it’s also very important for MPs and other people in Rangoon to be reminded of the reality where these children come from. In the end, we should be aiming to make this the last generation in Burma who has to live with war,” Debbie Stothard told DVB.
Speaking after meeting the young IDPs, the blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt said: “They told me that they just want to go back to their homes and an end to the war. They feel they are missing education opportunities because of their situation.”
The opening of the exhibition coincides with peace talks in Naypyitaw between representatives of the government and some armed groups. The timing has been staged to highlight the fact that tens of thousands of IDPs are still languishing in makeshift camps without much hope of returning to their homes any time soon.
“Compared with previous talks, in this meeting there is more transparency, it’s also more inclusive. That’s good. I think we can get some kind of solution. The problem is that some people don’t want to stop the war because they get some kind of benefit from it,” Nay Phone Latt said, refusing to elaborate on who were those people are. “But the youth and the Kachin people don’t want war,” he added.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who has participated in the meeting, said earlier this month that “building peace” in the country will be “the new government’s first priority,” when her party, that won November’s general election in a landslide, comes to power in April.
Nevertheless the five-day meeting in Naypyidaw has been heavily criticised by civil society organisations, who slammed the talks as not inclusive after being left off the guest list. The summit was completely boycotted by the United Nationalities Federal Council, an umbrella group of ethnic armed groups, including the KIA, that didn’t sign the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement in October last year.
Khon Ja, an activist from the Kachin Peace Network, echoed those complains from civil society and showed more scepticism about the upcoming government’s ability to achieve peace. “When the NLD talks about national reconciliation, it has more to do with reconciling with the Tatmadaw [the Burmese army]. I feel this is quite dangerous. We don’t know what is the agreement between the NLD and the army,” she told DVB.
Khon Ja also complained about the conditions in the camps. “The main issue in the camps is lack of funding. This means there are shortages of everything: food, healthcare, or education. For instance, people cannot take proper cover when it rains,” she said. “The very first thing is to stop the fighting so the IDPs can go back to their homes. Then they can carry the dialogue as long as they want,” she concluded.