As the conflict in Kachin state wages on, civilians remain caught in the crossfire.
SHAN STATE, Myanmar — Shan, a 53-year-old farmer, wears a blue-and-white button-down shirt over her patterned longyi, a traditional Burmese wrap. She sits quietly with her family, next to the few belongings they were able to carry when they were forced from their home in April.
Shan, who gave only her first name, is one of nearly 1,000 villagers from Myanmar's northern Kachin state who have settled in an abandoned school in the small town of Namkham, in neighboring Shan state. The school is a temporary refuge set up by the Kachin Baptist Convention -- a locally based Baptist denominational body whose mission is to provide aid in Myanmar's ethnic-minority areas -- for people displaced by renewed fighting between Myanmar's army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an armed ethnic group. The school has 20 or so classrooms, which now house droves of families -- with about 30 people packing tightly into each room for shelter, marking their respective spots on the ground with a few blankets. Nearly 200 other people occupy the concrete grounds of a dilapidated activities hall, where chairs and tables have been pushed to the side to make space.
The displaced fled amid a Myanmar army offensive intended to target KIA strongholds. But, according to Shan, only civilians were under bombardment. "There were no [rebel] soldiers, but they attacked our villages," Shan says. "The government troops shelled our villages."
The displaced Kachin state civilians in Namkham join approximately 120,000 others who have been living in camps in northern Myanmar since 2011, when a 17-year-old cease-fire between the government and the KIA collapsed. Since then, the government has staged a series of offensives against the rebels, most recently in June.
The KIA is just one of myriad ethnic rebel groups that have taken up arms against the government, which has long been dominated by the country's ethnic Burman majority since Myanmar (then Burma) gained independence in 1948. Fueled by ongoing demands for greater political autonomy and the military's brutal tactics throughout the conflict, the rebellions have been waged for decades.
Yet in recent years, most of the insurgent armies have agreed to cease-fires with the government. Today, Kachin is something of a last front in what is often called the world's longest-running civil war -- one that continues to place civilians at risk.
An emergency aid worker with the Kachin Baptist Convention who requested anonymity said the army ramped up operations in Mansi Township on April 10, searching the forests for KIA guerrilla bases and chasing away civilians by firing mortar rounds.
"The people [at the school] are from the villages," he said, adding that civilians fled their homes on foot and hid until aid workers brought them to Namkham. "Fifty are still hiding in the forest."
Since Myanmar's 2010 elections -- the country's first in 20 years -- the government has instituted a series of noteworthy political and economic reforms. Yet the optimism that emerged with the dissolution of the military regime is fading. The government has largely failed to protect Myanmar's Muslim minority from ongoing sectarian attacks, progress on media freedom is backsliding, and efforts to reform the constitution, which still grants significant political privileges to the military, has stalled.
Meanwhile, the military continues to be implicated in serious human rights abuses in Kachin as it seeks to root out the KIA once and for all.
Two young Kachin men, Sang, 20, and Goon, 21, were among several plucked from in and around the state's Bamuyang and Dingga villages after the military shelled their homes. Standing among the others displaced on the school grounds, they explain how they were forced to porter for government troops, guiding a battalion through forested mountains to rebel positions.
"First they forced us to walk ahead along the path between the farmlands because the army was afraid of land mines. Later, when we reached the front line, the fighting started," says Sang. Goon recalls taking cover with the Myanmar army soldiers in a village during fighting. "We were so scared that we would die," he says.
The two men were released after one day when a local Kachin church intervened by presenting the battalion with a letter petitioning for their release. The young men eventually found their way to the school in Namkham.
Their story is not unique. On June 9, Fortify Rights, a human rights organization based in Southeast Asia, released a report documenting abuses of Kachin civilians by government forces over the past two years, including indiscriminate shelling, forced labor, torture, beatings, rape, and murder. "Most of the torture we documented appeared to occur with the knowledge and consent of commanding officers, in similar ways and in disparate locations, indicating the abuses are being carried out as a matter of state policy," says Matt Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, adding that the president's office in Myanmar flatly denied the report's findings.
Such allegations, however, are not limited to the military. The KIA has also been cited for abuses. A 2012 report by Human Rights Watch, for instance, implicated the rebel army in the use of child soldiers, as well as the use of unconventional weapons, such as land mines, over the years.
Wartime abuses are compounded by the dire humanitarian situation in Kachin, particularly for those displaced within KIA-controlled territory. In June 2013, the government allowed the United Nations to deliver aid to those displaced in rebel-held areas -- the first time in nearly a year. But despite the official easing of aid restrictions, in practice government checkpoints continue to largely restrict access to Kachin villages affected heavily by conflict. Thus local organizations, as opposed to international ones, play a significant role in documenting abuses and providing aid to the displaced. The Kachin Baptist Convention, for instance, relies on informal relationships with personnel on both sides of the conflict in order to anticipate when skirmishes will take place and to either help deliver supplies or escort villagers out of the area. Despite its efforts -- alongside those of several other smaller aid groups -- there is an undersupply of provisions to support the ever-increasing number of displaced civilians.
The government has upheld its pledge to hold talks on a nationwide cease-fire with an alliance of ethnic groups. Yet agreement with the KIA and the Ta'ang (Palaung) National Liberation Army, a rebel group in northern Shan state, have proved elusive. And the April clashes between government forces and the KIA, which together reportedly killed at least two dozen soldiers and rebels, could undermine the government's hopes for a nationwide truce that would bring all civil conflict to an end. (It's uncertain how many civilians were killed in the attacks.)
The government and the KIA did meet in May and June for bilateral negotiations, and the two sides established a peace-monitoring commission intended to help prevent further clashes. And a government advisor involved in Myanmar's peace process said he is confident tensions are going to recede. "Whatever the current situation is in Kachin state, both the government and KIA are committed to the peace process. Nothing is big enough to derail it," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Yet there is little evidence to support his optimism. The bilateral negotiations have not brokered any lasting de-escalation in hostilities, and there is no real timetable for the conclusion of talks. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of civilians remain uprooted from their homes, with little hope of returning anytime soon. For the displaced, the prospect of future peace is overshadowed by the reality of what they have already lost.
Standing at the school in Namkham, Shan recollects how several people living near her have gone missing since the government shelled her township.
"Four persons are still missing. We don't know if they are still alive of dead," she says. "We need to find out."
Photos by Philip Heijmans