Lu Htawng had just finished building her home in June 2011 and was preparing for a housewarming ceremony when a 17-year ceasefire between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke down.
The fighting raged close by, so instead of welcoming people to her new home she had to abandon it, fleeing Da Bat Yang village like everyone else.
The 64-year-old mother of four has since lived with her family in the cramped St. Joseph camp for internally displaced people (IDPs), where they are plagued by unexploded landmines and an ongoing armed conflict.
On Tuesday Lu Htawng marked a grim anniversary; it has been nine years since the war in Kachin restarted.
The fighting has become less severe in recent years, but about 120,000 people are still stranded in squalid IDP camps throughout Kachin and northern Shan state.
Since 2017 the governing National League for Democracy (NLD) has pushed to close camps and return all IDPs nationwide. It unveiled a new national strategy in December, but critics say the plan is poorly thought through.
Many of the townships that IDPs fled are still littered with landmines, and the military and KIA have not signed a ceasefire. A 2012 law gave the government and private companies the ability to requisition vacated land, raising fears IDPs might lose the land they had to flee. Some have returned to villages before it is safe because they are worried companies or the government will take their land.
‘Nothing is left’
Lu Htawng and her family are on a list of first-round returnees in Kachin state scheduled for later this year.
Myanmar Now joined her in March for a visit to Da Bat Yang, in Waingmaw township – her first time back since she fled. She said the village was unrecognizable.
“Nothing is left,” she said, surveying the landscape. Weeds had overtaken everything. Homes were missing their bamboo-matted walls.
She found her house miraculously still intact, save for her once-lush front yard, which had been bulldozed and turned into a parking lot. Three construction trucks idled there. The state government was repairing a nearby road.
Then she saw the road workers were living in her home. She began to cry.
“How do we start everything all over again?” she said.
NLD plan disrupted
The number of IDP camps in Myanmar is a disputed matter.
There are 177 in Kachin and northern Shan state alone, according to the Joint Strategy Team (JST), a group of local humanitarian organisations. But there are just 128 across the entire country, according to the government’s resettlement ministry.
In December 2019 the NLD government unveiled a national strategy – written in consultation with UN agencies, civil society groups and IDPs themselves – to close all of them and send their residents home. It largely depends on working with a host of regional actors in different ethnic areas.
The faith-based Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee (KHCC) has been a major player in Kachin, where since 2017 it has worked with the governmental National Reconciliation and Peace Center (NRPC) on returns.
In 2018 the KHCC found 24 among the more than 200 abandoned villages it surveyed that it said were safe for returns. It drafted a plan with the state government for 10,000 IDPs to return to 17 of them by this May. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“We are focusing on Covid-19 now,” KHCC joint secretary Naw Latt told Myanmar Now. “We cannot work on safely returning IDPs at the moment.”
He said the group asked for the NRPC’s cooperation on the plan earlier this year but never heard back.
Myanmar Now was unable to reach an NRPC spokesperson for comment.
The Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), the KIA’s political wing, also submitted a plan to the KHCC, which submitted that plan to the NRPC in January.
Naw Latt said they’re waiting to hear back from the NRPC before making details of the plan public.
Kachin state border affairs minister Nay Lin Tun, a serving Tatmadaw colonel, said he told state officials and the NRPC that many homes will need to be repaired at a cost of about 750,000 kyat ($535) per house before IDPs can return. They have not yet determined how many homes need repairing.
Funds for that would come from the national budget. He said he is also still waiting to hear back from the NRPC.
Additionally, the country’s resettlement ministry plans to send an initial 93 families back to Da Bat Yang and in Talawgyi, a village in Myitkyina township, but those plans were also stalled by the Covid-19 pandemic, a ministry spokesperson told Myanmar Now.
Later plans include additional returns to Waingmaw, Mansi and Chiphwe townships.
‘We won’t resettle before a ceasefire’
Civil society groups and IDPs themselves have urged the government not to send IDPs home until several concerns are addressed.
The war rumbles on, and the military still maintains bases in several townships – including one near Da Bat Yang.
This troubles Maran Htu, 32, who is also among the list of initial returnees to Da Bat Yang.
“I’m afraid they will start fighting again once we are back,” she told Myanmar Now at her home in the St. Joseph camp.
She said she’s asked the camp to allow her back if that happens.
Religious leaders say returns cannot take place until a bilateral ceasefire is signed.
The KIA is one of the many ethnic armed groups that have so far refused to sign the National Ceasefire Agreement drafted in 2013 by the military, the Thein Sein government and several armed ethnic groups.
“Most of the IDP camps are in KIA-controlled areas,” said Dr Hkalam Samson, KHCC chair and Kachin Baptist Convention president. “Camp closures can’t be done unilaterally.”
KIA spokesperson Naw Bu agreed.
“We want to continue discussions that have been interrupted by the Covid-19 outbreak,” he said. “We will only resettle people once there is a ceasefire.”
The 2012 Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law gives the government and private companies the ability to requisition vacated land.
Because of an amendment passed in 2018, anyone who has left their land but wants to retain their claim to it had to apply for a certificate by March 11, 2019.
Those who haven’t claimed could have their land taken by the government or handed to a private company, and could even be jailed for two years if they use the land.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the law incentivized land grabbing by state authorities in traditional villages like those the IDPs have fled, where land is passed from one generation to the next by custom rather than law.
“Large numbers of people in Myanmar are unaware of the law and the risks of not filing a claim, or have been displaced by armed conflict and are unable to file for a permit,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director.
An editorial written by an IDP for the Transnational Institute think tank described the confluence of the 2018 amendment, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the camp closure plan as a “perfect storm” for returning IDPs.
The law “paved a ‘legal’ way for land that was left idle and unused for several years to be seized by the government and reallocated to others, regardless of circumstances like war,” the editorial said. “It seems that in the eyes of the Myanmar elite, and in the light of (the) BRI agenda, ‘economic development’ means that our lands are needed, but we are not.”
Maran Htu is worried Chinese agriculture companies – which started investing heavily in Kachin state in 2011 – will soon take her land.
“They are already starting to take land in our village.” she said. “We need to be there to make claims on it.”
Several companies have expanded watermelon, pepper and tissue-cultured banana plantations, among other crops, into land conceded to them after being left by IDPs in Waingmaw township in 2017, according to the Kachin-based Lisu Civil Society Organisation.
Surrounded by landmines
The military unilaterally sent 600 IDPs back to Nam San Yam village, in Waingmaw, in two groups in January and March 2019 – a move that angered Kachin activists and religious leaders, who felt cut out of the process.
Nam San Yam, once a village of more than 1,000 on the Myintkyina-Bhamo Road, has been a site of major conflict. It is within KIA territory, but a military base is stationed there as well.
The area is littered with landmines, left by both the military and the KIA throughout the region. In 2019 mines killed eight civilians and wounded 21 in Kachin, according to state government figures.
Nay Lin Tun said they can’t be cleared until both sides have signed a ceasefire.
Jan Ma Doi, who is among the 60o that have returned to Nam San Yam, told Myanmar Now she’ll only walk where she can see others have already stepped.
“I don’t dare go where there aren’t already footprints,” she said.
Most of her family is still at a camp near Laiza, where KIA headquarters are.
Hkun Ra, 60, also returned to Nam San Yam. She said the village is regularly visited by troops from both sides, and residents are confined to within a one-mile radius of the village.
“We’ve all been depressed ever since coming back,” she said.
Six of her eight children remain at another camp near Laiza. She said she won’t bring them home until things are safe.
Throughout the region, schools and electricity and water supplies have been heavily damaged by the fighting, and many returnees have found they’ve lost their land, houses and cattle, a study published last year by the JST found.
It surveyed 95 returnees and found three primary reasons they’d come back: a lack of work in the camps, worsening camp conditions and fear of losing their land.
For others, though, the reasons are more personal.
“I have returned home because this is where I want to die,” Hkun Ra said.
A glimmer of hope
About 300 St. Joseph camp residents have taken matters into their own hands.
They are trying to move into two villages – Kyuntaw and Uri Mongya Ran – that are two miles from the camp.
“They bought the land themselves. They want to build houses since they can’t go back to their villages,” camp officer Lwan Zal said.
Naw Tawng, 44, bought a plot in Uri Mongya Ran for 500,000 kyat.
“It’s uncomfortable living in a small room [at St Joseph],” the father of four told Myanmar Now.
During his nine years at St. Joseph, Naw Tawng often tried to visit his former village of Kan Taw Yang, on the outskirts of Waingmaw near the China-Myanmar border, but could never get too close. The military had a base there and would not let him in.
“Even if others can return to their villages, we can’t, because the Tatmadaw and the KIA are there,” he said.
In Uri Mongya Ran he will have his own house with a yard, and his four children can attend school there – which he doesn’t think is possible in his home village anymore.
“The house I move into doesn’t have to be beautiful,” he said. “But a person has no dignity without a house and some land.”
Translated by Swe Zin Moe.
Editing by Danny Fenster.