Summer 2018 Field Research Fellow: Past and Present IDPs in Northern Myanmar

 

A farm near Pyinmalut village.

Tens of thousands of Myanmar citizens today are internally displaced. It is estimated that there are about 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin State and northern Shan State alone. Some estimates go as high as 120,000. These estimates are unlikely to include IDPs who have left the camps and attempted to integrated into nondisplaced communities; this means that the estimates do not indicate the cumulative number of civilians who have been displaced as a result of armed conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Tatmadaw, the armed forces of Myanmar. These IDPs have been taking refuge camps for seven years now, and the amount of aid they receive have dwindled over the years. Several forms of domestic abuse, difficulty in accessing basic education, making ends meet, and young girls trafficked across international border are common challenges faced by IDP families.

This is not the first time that civilians in northern Myanmar have been displaced. In the wake of Kachin armed rebellion in the early 1960s, many families were displaced. Some more were displaced in the subsequent decades. However, this was before the age of media in Myanmar, and international and domestic communities seemed unaware of or easily forgot about their displacement. Furthermore, these families resettled in new places and began their lives anew, further obscuring their displacement. Therefore, it was not until 2011, when fighting resumed in the Kachin region, that people started talking about IDP crisis in the Kachin region. However, it is worth reflecting on the previous waves of Kachin IDPs, for they illuminate invaluable insights on dire implication of armed conflict and displacement on ethnic minority communities in Myanmar. Just a few days ago, I had a unique opportunity of observing just that.

I stayed at Pyinmalut, which is a village tract in Katha Township, Sagiang Region for about three days. It is located along the Irrawaddy River, which is the largest and most important commercial waterway in Myanmar. It is just a few miles south of Kachin State and west of northern Shan State. There I met families who were displaced decades ago from southern Kachin State and northern Shan State. When their villages became consumed by armed conflict, they fled to Katha which offered safe refuge. Decades have passed and by all account, they seemed settled. But there is an undeniable stagnation particularly in education and job security.

The only job available to the villagers seems to be to work as day laborers, usually under 90-degree weather, on surrounding rice paddies. This job pays about 4000-5000 kyats (about $3.5) per day, which would amount to a decent monthly salary (Myanmar standard) if the laborers were guarantee 5 days of work every week. But laborers from this village do not get a full month of work even in July, which is when the bulk of planting occur. Once the planting is done, the villagers then wait for the harvest season when they can expect day laborer jobs. Every now and then, a few villagers would land fruit-picking jobs, which typically involves climbing up trees. Depending on difficulty of tree-climbing and the baskets of fruits picked, the laborers could earn up to 9000 kyats (about $6.5) per day. But there aren’t fruit plantations in the area, so fruit picking jobs usually last a day or two at most. The bottom line is that there is no job security.

Negative implication of the lack of job security in the village is most felt in terms of education. Even without cash in their hands, the villagers cannot hire “tuition teachers” for their children. In Myanmar education system, tuitions are integral part of obtaining formal education. They are usually held before or after school and during weekends by public school teachers for a fee. The parents typically explain that without tuition their students do not perform well in school. Tuition becomes even more important for 10thgrade students who will sit for matriculation exam at the end of the academic year (tuition is perhaps even more so than school itself for 10thgraders. Why students and parents alike believe that tuition is integral to passing the matriculation exam is a discussion for another time). Total tuition fee for a 10thgrade student can average 1,000,000 kyats (about $714) at the lower end. How can villagers making 5000 kyats intermittently afford to pay for tuition? As a result, matriculation exam success rate is fairly low and even those who passed the exams rarely ever achieve subject distinction. The parents cannot afford to pay for university school fee and with relative low passing scores, scholarship or sponsorship from philanthropic families cannot be expected. For the few students who make it to universities, their scores are not high enough to pursue professional majors, which means that they cannot make a living in the cities. Thus, the cycle of job insecurity continues.

This is not to say that every displaced person remains stuck in the village and remains in poverty. Some were able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps because they have family connection, resources and for many other reasons. The lucky few ventured out to the jade mines of Hpakant, Kachin State and became wealthy (chances of this happening are probably the same as that of winning lottery). But generally speaking, displaced families are systematically disadvantaged in their attempt to achieve desirable societal outcomes.

Although poverty is experienced by the Bamars, the ethnic majority in Myanmar, it is important to note that displacement and subsequent implications predominantly affect ethnic minority communities because armed conflicts tend to be ethnic in nature in Myanmar and are waged only in ethnic minority areas. A glimpse of the previous waves of IDPs suggest that even decades after they have resettled, the vast majority of displaced population remain uncertain of their future.

 

 

Jangai Jap is a Ph.D. Candidate in George Washington University’s Political Science Department. Her research interest includes ethnic politics, national identity, local government and Myanmar politics. Her dissertation aims to explain factors that shape ethnic minorities’ attachment to the state and why has the state been more successful in winning over a sense of attachment from members of some ethnic minority groups than other ethnic minority groups. She has won the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and her dissertation research has received support from the Cosmos Club Foundation and GW’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies. 

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