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Situated along a muddy dirt road that winds through southern Kachin State’s lush green hills, Ngwe Pyaw Model Village can only be reached after a bumpy, 90-minute car ride from the state capital Myitkyina.
Ngwe Pyaw, which means ‘wealthy village’ in Burmese, was founded by the government in May 2014 as a pilot resettlement site. But it is wealthy only in name as the 283 displaced families here struggle to get by due to its isolation, a lack of fertile farmland, and livelihood opportunities.
“We can get day-labour jobs only three or four days per month and the wages are paid a few days later,” Lei Wai Khaing, a 27-year-old ethnic Kachin, told Myanmar Now. She explained that villagers eke out a living by working irregular jobs such as motorbike taxi drivers, rubber plantation labourers and crafting jewellery from locally mined amber.
Many of the family members are separated as some are forced to seek jobs in Myitkyina, or even further away in major cities like Mandalay and Rangoon [Yangon], the commercial capital in lower Burma.
“My daughter sometimes goes to Yangon to sell pieces of amber, leaving my granddaughter with me at the village,” said Khin Cho Kyi, 54, who earns some money from doing laundry in the village and from collecting firewood in the surrounding hills. She uses it to support a family of three.
“My younger sister became disabled after a car accident so I cannot leave her to work in the town,” said Lei Wai Khaing, whose family includes a sister suffering from a stroke.
At the site – built in a clearing of shrub forest on red, laterite soil where few crops can grow – the families live in simple houses made of bamboo and corrugated-iron roofs on 12- by 18-metre plots. There are three ponds to supply them with water, while one dispensary provides medicine to the community.
“Although villagers do not need to worry about shelter, they are still concerned about food and income,” said village head Aung Swe, who added that the homes were rickety and vulnerable to heavy rains and gusts of winds.
The government funded the model village as a pilot project that offers a temporary resettlement alternative to the camps for civilians who have been displaced by the Kachin conflict in northern Burma.
Now in its fourth year, the war has caused some 120,000 people to flee their homes in hundreds of villages in Kachin State and northern Shan State. About half of them live in camps in government-controlled areas, while the remainder live in camps in Kachin Independence Army-controlled parts, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA).
UN agencies and international aid groups have been supporting the displaced in government-controlled areas, but aid to those in rebel areas has been limited due to government restrictions on access.
At Ngwe Pyaw, families receive around US$11 per month in household income support from international aid organisations, according to UNOCHA in Burma.
The residents – a mix of ethnic Kachin, Shan and some Burmese – used to live in camps, and before that they fled their villages in Wai Maw, Thargaya, Myitkyina, Nant Saram and Mai Na townships in 2011.
Khin Cho Kyi recalled how she barely escaped Saram Village in Wai Maw Township, where she owned a tea shop, when mortar shells landed close by in June 2011. “I ran from my village under life-threatening conditions and I could not bring any belongings,” she told Myanmar Now.
Government officials could not be reached for comment on the model village project, while Kachin aid workers said it remains unclear whether more were being planned.
Khon Jha, an activist with the Kachin Peace Network, said the model village established at Ngwe Pyaw offered some improvement in living conditions for the displaced civilians, but stressed it was only a temporary solution for the long-suffering families.
“The establishment of this village is good for the displaced people. But it is more crucial to ensure that they can go back to their native villages, which can happen only if the fighting between ethnic armed groups and the government stops,” she told Myanmar Now.
This report was originally published by Myanmar Now on 24 August 2015.