‘They Feel Hopeless’

2013-03-08
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Ah Noh, in an undated photo.
Photo courtesy of Ah Noh

Ah Noh, an ethnic Kachin woman from northern Burma’s Kachin state joined the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand (KWAT) in 2007 as part of a training internship. Today she is deputy coordinator for KWAT. During her internship with the organization she learned about women’s rights and decided that she wanted to do more to highlight the challenges facing women in her community. In June 2011, fighting erupted between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military, shattering a 17-year cease-fire agreement and causing as many as 100,000 people to flee the conflict. Some two-thirds of these internally displaced persons (IDP) are women, according to An Noh, who is helping to document many of the dangers facing this vulnerable group of refugees.

“Before, we didn’t have the experience of dealing with a humanitarian crisis. In the past, we didn’t have this kind of problem. Since the fighting started, there are a lot of IDPs who fled to the area along the border [with China] where we are working. We had to do something to help because there were so many IDPs coming. They had no food and no shelter. My organization and several community-based groups formed a relief group … and we are trying to get support from the international community for the IDPs. There were a lot of human rights violations [that the IDPs had faced] so my organization has been working on advocacy … to educate people about Burma.”

“Most of the international community is simply rewarding the new government … but are ignoring the situation in Kachin state … That is one of the reasons we are here—to tell the international community about … this humanitarian crisis and these human rights violations. These are the government’s responsibility and they have to be held accountable for these things too … I accept that there have been some [reforms from the Burmese government], but these changes are not really benefitting the people, especially in the ethnic areas … It’s not only for Rangoon and [Burmese capital] Naypyidaw, it should be for all of Burma, and that has not been addressed.”

“Since June 2011, my organization alone has documented at least 64 women and girls who have been raped in 18 townships in Kachin state by 14 different Burmese battalions. Half of these women were killed after they were raped. And this is continuing—even as recently at Feb. 14, [we heard news that] a woman had been raped and killed again. Not only women, but also men, have been kidnapped and forced to work as porters carrying the military’s supplies. In the daytime these women must carry the military’s supplies, but at night, the women become sex slaves for the Burmese military. They have also been using civilians as minesweepers … and forced recruitment of child soldiers. I have also heard that there are some child soldiers in the KIA … but many of these young boys want to join the KIA to get rid of the Burmese army … In the KIA there are also a lot of women soldiers on the front lines.”

Challenges of refugee life

“Lately, the Kachin Independence Organization [political wing of the KIA] has shown recognition of our work, but there are a lot of challenges in speaking [with the leadership]. Not only the KIO, but in speaking with Kachin men as well. I hope that they will learn to accept the important role women play in Kachin society.”

“I’m really concerned about the women [in refugee camps] who are giving birth. If we don’t have enough nutrition, the babies will have problems with their mental development. If babies have these problems, what will this mean for the Kachin people in the future? … In the IDP camp there are a lot of women and they [face] a lack of nutrition. In January, when I was in [the KIA stronghold of] Laiza, there were 10 babies under the age of one dying of diarrhea.”

“I interviewed women from the camp and they said they feel hopeless—they have no place to run from the fighting. One woman said that she can see tanks from the camp, so they feel trapped. There is only China, but China does not accept refugees and the last time [Kachin fled across the border] they sent refugees back. They are so afraid and they feel that they have no protection. So I am largely concerned that the women get enough nutrition—when we talk about women, it always involves children so both of them need adequate amounts of food. And also their security … Right now, they feel that they have no protection … There are lots of young girls and boys who cannot access education—they have been living for nearly two years in the camps. This is important for the long-term.”

“Today is International Women’s Day and the women from Burma, especially women who are affected by conflict, should not be forgotten on this day.”

Reported by Joshua Lipes.