Far From Home and Fearing for Their Lives, Burma’s Kachin Celebrate a Grim Christmas

Around 100,000 people currently inhabit ramshackle displacement camps in freezing northernmost Burma, victims of a two-and-a-half-year struggle between ethnic rebels and central government

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Khin Maung Win / AP

A girl at a refugee camp at the headquarters of the Kachin Independence Army in Laiza, in Kachin state, Burma, on Oct. 29, 2013

Christmas used to be a special time for the Kachin people of northern Burma. Festivities traditionally last throughout December and move from village to village — featuring songs, sermons, cultural dances and bonfires — with one area picked for the main Christmas celebration, to where these devout Christians would flock from across the craggy emerald terrain.

Recently, however, seasonal cheer has been in short supply. Around 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently inhabit ramshackle tents amid the freezing climbs of the Himalayan foothills, victims of a resumption of hostilities between ethnic rebels and the central government. “The situation in the camps is critical,” Pierre Péron, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Rangoon, tells TIME. “Simple things such as warm clothes are needed very quickly.”

(PHOTOSOn the Front Lines With the Kachin Independence Army)

In 2011, the military junta that ruled Burma, officially known as Myanmar, ceded power to a quasi-civilian administration largely staffed by former generals. Political prisoners were released, media restrictions eased and elections held that saw Nobel laureate and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi voted into parliament. In response, Western powers eased the stringent economic sanctions that had crippled the country’s economy for decades.

But ever since independence from British colonial rule was achieved in 1948, Burma’s myriad ethnic minorities have sought greater autonomy from central government. The half-century of bloody conflict that followed remains the world’s longest-running civil war and continues to be waged despite a raft of fragile peace deals, including a tentative agreement between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a major rebel group, and the Naypyidaw government in October.

These agreements have not stopped the fighting, though, and terrified civilians are still forced to flee their homes. Late last month, clashes flared near the city of Mansi, in Kachin state, leading to the further displacement of around 3,000 people, including a large number of children. Fighting continued sporadically even this week. “They have no hope and are crying all the time,” says Mary Tawm, head of the Wunpawng Ninghtoi relief NGO, which works in the IDP camps. Harvest season was at full tilt when the Burmese military arrived, she says, and so the young men had to flee straight from their fields without their families or belongings. “Some are not wearing slippers. They had to run to save their lives.” One elderly woman had to walk four days by herself as her family was forced to leave her behind. “It’s a tragedy,” adds Mary Tawm. “We are planning to trace her family.”

(MORE: Is the World’s Longest-Running Civil War About to End?)

The camps were dire even before the latest arrivals, with scarce warm clothes, meager rice rations and woeful sanitation. “There are not enough tents, and some must sleep under just tarpaulin,” says Mary Tawm. “Every morning there is snow on the ground and their blankets are wet.” Just over half of the displaced are located in rebel-held territory, meaning that international aid organizations have only sporadic access, as they must either negotiate battle lines or cross the border from China. This means “health care is a big need in these camps,” says Matthew Smith, executive director of the Fortify Rights NGO, who recently returned from six weeks documenting human-rights violations in Kachin state. Aside from a lack of medical equipment, drugs and vaccinations, some camps still do not have enough latrines for the displaced population. “This is unacceptable two and a half years into the conflict,” he adds.

Sadly for the Kachin, violence over Christmas is nothing new. Last December, the Burmese military launched a blistering dry-season offensive using jet fighters and helicopter gunships against Lajayang, a strategically coveted outpost just 7 miles from the KIA stronghold of Laiza. “Every Christmas time we have to forget all the people lost and the reality we have to face,” Mary Tawm says. “Last year the fighting happened and so we feel sad.” Little wonder, “psychosocial support is desperately needed,” says Smith. Those caught up in the conflict suffer horrific abuses. “Two women were raped that we know for sure, two men killed and two men were captured, tortured but later escaped,” says David Eubank, of the Free Burma Rangers, a humanitarian-support group that works in conflict zones, regarding the latest clashes around Mansi. “We went to many IDP camps in June, but all these people have now fled. It’s just wrong.”

But no matter how desperate their situation, returning home risks much more. “There are still large areas with land mines,” says Péron. “Every month we are getting reports of people being injured or killed by them.” For those who take the risk, survival is often tougher than the camps — with fields strewn with explosives and no job prospects, there is precious little opportunity to earn a living, especially as the main breadwinner has often been imprisoned. “A large number of men have been rounded up under the Unlawful Associations Act,” says Smith. “There is a ripple effect to all these human-rights violations.”

Burma’s civil conflicts are rooted in ethnoreligious animosity. The country’s Bamar majority is almost exclusively Buddhist, while many minorities of the border regions, like the Kachin, are Christian, a product of American missionaries in the mid-19th century. “Anti-Christian sentiment tends to come up when Kachin men are being tortured,” says Smith, adding that “scores” of churches have been destroyed by marauding troops. “In some cases soldiers have opened fire on churches while civilians have been sheltering inside.”

(MOREInside Burma’s War)

While atrocities sometimes take sectarian overtones, and the Burmese military’s age-old justification for its ironfisted rule is to prevent widespread Balkanization, the latest fighting appears financially motivated. Kachin state has vast mineral deposits including gold and jade, as well as teak forests and huge hydropower potential. The canard of development riches swayed the KIA into signing a cease-fire with Burma’s military regime in 1994, but 17 years of dams, opencast mining and illegal logging soon devastated the environment and local livelihoods, prompting a return to arms. Now the Burmese government wants to ensure that it retains control of these lucrative assets, claims Brang Hkangda, an editor for Kachinland News. “[Burmese President] Thein Sein has full knowledge of military’s advance in Kachin region,” he says. “He declared a unilateral cease-fire in January 2013 only after the Burmese military secured strategic positions.”

Despite their hardships, the Kachin are still celebrating Christmas in the camps. For want of glitzy decorations, flowers adorn communal areas and hymns are caroled with great gusto. A Rangoon-based NGO is bringing humble gifts for the camp’s wretched children. “They really are quite amazing,” says Eubank, who has spent almost every Christmas over the past two decades in Burma. “These people are in big trouble, they don’t have a lot, but they choose to be thankful that they are alive.”

Last November, President Barack Obama visited Burma in the wake of easing punitive economic measures, and vowed to support the Southeast Asian nation’s embattled people to mark a new era of engagement. “The flickers of progress that we have seen must not be extinguished — they must be strengthened,” said the U.S. Commander in Chief. But for 100,000 Kachin, any flickers died a long time ago.

PHOTOSBurma Unbound: Photos from a Waking Nation by Adam Ferguson

21 comments
Jenkins Joseph Bawoh
Jenkins Joseph Bawoh

Mandy K Newell, i don't totally understand what you are trying to put to me. Or are you trying to point my statement as sarcastic or is it that of Time's?

Tiffany Adair
Tiffany Adair

you can help them bynsupporting Alan Clements new initiatives at World Dharma website. A movie, a bold one, is in the works. look it up and support this revolutionary project to the people of Myanmar!

Mandy L Newell
Mandy L Newell

If it were your people, Jenkins, would you dare to have someone say that to you in place of your people?

Mandy L Newell
Mandy L Newell

But honestly it takes this to put everyday people in a place to think outside their own little world. All we can do is try to help where we can and pay it forward. Mark, yes, you can feel like that and push away, or you can find a way to help someone and just hope it flourishes two more people then four than six, to make a chain to help those in Burma.

Mike Clarkson Sr.
Mike Clarkson Sr.

Stop being refugees. Go back and fight for what you believe or you will forever be victims. And stop having children and bringing into all that crap!

Neven Mubarak
Neven Mubarak

Breaking News: Israel breaks the Peace Deal with Egypt and creates terrorist attacks against Egypt through armed militias! ==================================== Although Egypt had kept obligation towards the Peace Deal with Israel, since 1978, Israel attempted time after time, to break this deal and to force Egypt to enter into a Military War with Israel! Israel never enters any war alone, because it is just a minor extension to great Zionist countries. Israel always uses others to make proxy wars, instead of sending Israeli troops to fight. Israel knows nothing about peace and was not implanted in 1948, after the creation of the Zionist United Nations in 1945, to keep peace in the Middle East. Israel started a cold war, a fourth generation war, against Egypt, immediatly in 1974, after the Egyptian Military victory on Israel, in 1973, which cleared Sinai of Egypt from Israeli troops. Early morning on Tuesday 24th December, 2013, Israeli-related jihadist Militias, named Champions of Jerusalem or Ansar Beit Elmaqdes, used an Israeli-made gas pressure or gas burst bomb, that is internationally banned, and caused the killing of 17 police officers and the injury of hundreds of civilians in Mansoura city in Nile Delta of Egypt, in addition to the collapse of hundreds of buildings. The bomb was targetting an oil station, close to the Center of Police and Security in the city, so that it causes the burning of half of the city. God bless, there was no oil in that station at that time, which decreased the destruction and injuries. Ansar Beit Elmaqdes stated that they are behind the explosion and that they will continue their attacks against police, army and civilians, to revenge from Egyptians, for ousting Morsi. Ansar Beit Elmaqdes, like all other terrorist jihadist militias had never made any terrorist explosions inside Israel or against Israel, because Mossad uses MK Ultra to mind control and direct them. The wives of Brotherhood leaders; Morsi and Elshater stated weeks ago that they will make assassinations and explosions, to force the return of Morsi and Brotherhood. Over the past few months, since the Egyptian Revolution against Muslim Brotherhood in June 30th, 2013, USA, EU and UN continued to deny that it was a revolution, and claimed it was a military coup, ignoring the will of 40 Million Egyptian protesters and continued to defend terrorist Brotherhood in Egypt, like what they support and arm jihadists in Syria, Yemen, Libya ,Tunisia and Sudan! They made extreme pressures and threats to prevent Egypt from officially naming their precious agent; Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, to prevent the trial of Morsi and Brotherhood leaders, to force to free them and other spies, to prevent the voting on new constitution which is due on January 14th, 2014, to prevent stability in Egypt, to collapse economy, to continue terrorism and division and to force another CIA-MI6-Mossad puppet, like Elabaradei, as a President! They are afraid that the trial of Morsi and Brotherhood leaders will expose the involvement of Obama, Hillary, Mccaine, Carter, Kerry, Patterson, Scobey, Burns, Ashton and others, in their terrorist and criminal attacks against Egypt and Arab countries, as a proxy war for Israel! Recently, the wife of Morsi admitted that Hillary is completely involved in Brotherhood terrorism and months ago, the son of Elsahter vowed to expose the role of Obama in terrorism with Brotherhood. Egypt declared Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization immedaitely after that terrorist attack, which means that all persons and countries involved with them will be directly responsible for all their terrorist crimes!

József Pauer
József Pauer

Ez akár nálunk is lehetne,"Magyarország jobban teljesít!"

Neven Mubarak
Neven Mubarak

Breaking News: Israeli-related militias and bombs behind terrorist explosion in Egypt and Egyptian vow to throw Ashton if she dare visit Luxor! Champions of Jerusalem or Ansar Beit Elmaqdes jihadist militias, which were created by Mossad in 2011, admitted they are responsible for a huge terrorist explosion, which occured in Mansoura city in Egypt, early morning on Tuesday 24th, 2013. The explosion resulted from a gas burst bomb, which is only made in Israel and is internationally banned. Gas burst bombs cause no fires, lead to explosion of buildings and reach to 1 kilometer range. The explosion left 17 deaths and hundreds of injured police officers and civilians, in addition to the collapse of the Central Police Station and hundreds of buildings. Egyptian authority declared Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, with all its branches and parties. Over the past few months, USA, EU, and UN used extreme pressures and threats on the Egyptian authority, to prevent the declaration of Brotherhood as terrorists, to free their leaders and other CIA-MI6-Mossad-related spies, who were arrested recently, to prevent the voting on the new constitution, to prevent stability and gurantee endless mess in Egypt and to force on Egyptians another CIA-spy, like Elbaradei, as a President. They are so frightened that because Obama, Hillary, Mccaine, Kerry, Patterson, Scobey, Ashton and and others will be condemned, with Brotherhood, in a pile of terrorist crimes against Egypt and other Arab countries. On the other hand, Egyptians declared that British Baroness; Catherine Ashton is not welcomed in Egypt and that if she dare visit Luxor, on Thursday 26th, 2013, for a week, as planned, they will throw her with rotten tomatoes and throw her out of Egypt. Egyptians expressed their anger, because Ashton's visit for Luxor will be taken as a cover to plan for more terrorism in Egypt and to carry out in her diplomatic bags more stolen Pharaonic statues and Brotherhood money, like she used to do, which they will never allow to happen any further!

Troy Clark
Troy Clark

They don't celebrate Christmas though so who cares?

Talha Farukh
Talha Farukh

some real news via TIME - appreciated !!!

Brian John Nicholson
Brian John Nicholson

Actually, like most refugees around the world they are victims of politicians.

Mark Swearingen
Mark Swearingen

Thanks time! making me feel like a selfish A** 365 days a year