Je Yang Refugee Camp in Kachin State, Myanmar.
Lazing Lu, a 108-year-old refugee.
A Kachin boy plays in the refugee camp
Life in the streets of the refugee camp.
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LAIZA, Myanmar—Jangma Pri Seng was in the paddy fields, harvesting rice far from her house, when she heard the artillery shells exploding in the distance. Though her stomach always sunk at the sound of explosions, at first she didn’t panic. It was November 2011, five months since the Burmese army had broken a 17-year-old ceasefire agreement with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and invaded Kachin State, the jagged northern tip of Myanmar that is home to ethnic Kachin like Jangma. For five months, the residents of Nangkyu, Jangma’s village, had been listening to explosions in the hills as the KIO fought desperately to keep the army out of its territory. Several times they had fled into the jungle as the fighting neared, but always Nangkyu had been left alone. Still, as the only Kachin village in an area dominated by ethnic Shan villages, they knew they were a target. The Burmese authorities, convinced the village was harboring KIO soldiers, had ordered them not to leave the village without permission, and had made a list of all members of the village. No outsiders were allowed to enter. One man caught on the road between villages was arrested and beaten. It was a grim way to live, but as long as they obeyed, they survived.

Yet that November evening, when Jangma and her fellow villagers returned exhausted from the fields, they walked into a nightmare. More than twenty artillery shells had struck Nangkyu. Many houses were burning or obliterated. The oldest and youngest citizens of Nangkyu were hiding terrified in the remaining houses. Jangma found her four young children, who were unharmed. Miraculously, no one in the village had been killed, but the animals had not been so lucky. A pigsty had been ripped apart by a direct hit, scattering pig remains across the smoking ground. And the army was very near.

Jangma and the rest of the villagers immediately grabbed whatever things they could carry and ran into the jungle. They had heard what had happened to other villages that didn’t. “If we had stayed any longer, we’d be dead now,” she says. They hid in the jungle for the next three days, trying to figure out what to do. “It was terrifying. Most people hadn’t brought anything but the clothes they were wearing. We didn’t have enough food. And we could hear troops everywhere. We couldn’t make a sound. We couldn’t even let the kids cry.” Eventually, they made some calls on cell phones to relatives and some friendly Shan neighbors, and a motor-scooter convoy came to the rescue, slipping around the army positions. They loaded three to four people on each scooter. Jangma helped her 108-year-old grandmother onto a scooter with another villager behind her, holding her tight. In that position, they made the tortuous eight-hour journey over rutted dirt roads to Laiza, capital of the KIO, where they finally collapsed in one of the bursting refugee camps filling the Laiza countryside.

A UNIQUE CULTURE CAUGHT BETWEEN MYANMAR AND CHINA

Walk through any of the refugee camps in KIO territory, and you will find endless stories like Jangma’s. For nearly a year now, Myanmar’s notorious military, which has kept a stranglehold on its citizens since it seized power in a 1962 coup, has been trying to squeeze the life out of the KIO, which has controlled much of Kachin State during those same 50 years.

Though unrecognized by any nation, the KIO has functioned as an independent micro-state. It collects taxes and generates additional income through government-owned mining and logging businesses. It operates immigration departments, police departments, fire departments, drug treatment centers, hydropower plants, bottled-water plants, free schools, free hospitals, Kachin cultural programs, and, of course, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

It has been a lifeline for the Kachin people, who originated in the mountains of Tibet, before migrating centuries ago across the border to Northeast India and eventually occupying the rugged borderlands between India, Myanmar, and China. Despite the lines on the map, the two million Kachin of the region are united by their unique language, religion, and culture. That culture was allowed to flourish in Kachin State, the northernmost region of Myanmar, where the terrain was so rugged and difficult to cultivate that it held no interest for the Burmese, who live in the fertile tropical river plains of southern Myanmar.

Yet now, even as Myanmar opens up to the world and tries to parlay its democratization into an easing of international sanctions and an increase in financial support, it has decided to exterminate the KIO and take brutal control over Kachin State. The timing seems strange, until one understands that Kachin State has transformed from worthless backwater to one of the key geopolitical spots on the planet. The Burmese regime plans to fuel its metamorphosis into a Southeast Asian powerhouse with a series of highways, oil and gas pipelines, and some of the largest hydroelectric dams the world has ever seen, all built in Kachin State. When completed, they will link landlocked sections of India and China with Myanmar’s ports on the Bay of Bengal, and create a new energy-rich nexus for the New Asia, centered right in northern Myanmar. The only thing standing in the way is the Kachin people.

Across Kachin State, villages like Nangkyu are being emptied as the KIA is driven back to its core territory, a 100-mile strip of land along the border with China. As the NGO Human Rights Watch documented in a March 20 report, the army has murdered civilians, tortured men suspected of being KIA members, and raped women. It has ransacked churches, burned entire villages to the ground, killed livestock, and pillaged food supplies. With resupply routes along Myanmar’s crumbling roads difficult at best, the 146 Burmese battalions in the region must feed themselves. It’s no coincidence that the wave of attacks intensified right around harvest time in November. And then there is the most insidious part of the army’s plan: What better way to paralyze your enemy than by sending wave after wave of its own people, hungry and penniless, onto its doorstep?

Of the 75,000 refugees, mostly Kachin, who have fled the Burmese army since its June invasion, about 40,000 are sheltering in KIO-operated camps. Another 20,000 are living in camps run by the government. The other 15,000 are off the map, likely hiding somewhere in China. Other than two minor exceptions, the government has prevented United Nations relief convoys from reaching the refugees in KIO territory. Some speculate that this is because the government fears the KIO being seen as a caretaker of the refugees, rather than the “insurgents” it labels them. Others believe that the goal is to stress the KIO’s limited resources to the breaking point.

CAMP LIFE

For all the trauma suffered by its residents, Je Yang Camp, the largest of the refugee camps, is a surprisingly pleasant place. 5,764 people, about half under the age of sixteen, live along the banks of the Je Yang River in peace and security, if not exactly comfort. This is a testament to the KIO, which has been anticipating a Burmese offensive for years. A refugee committee was already in place, emergency supplies stockpiled, and land for the main camp had already been chosen, so when the refugees began pouring out of the jungle into Laiza last summer, they were ready.

The KIO had previously donated a large tract of land along the Je Yang River to the Roman Catholic Church to be a wildlife sanctuary—badly needed in this state, whose fabulous hardwood forests are being cut and shipped to supply China’s building boom. Now the church turned around and donated the land back to the KIO, which went to work building bamboo huts, outhouses, and wells. When the first refugees arrived on June 27, two weeks after the fighting had started, they were assigned huts and broken up into village blocks, delineated by a grid of dirt footpaths. Block leaders were chosen. People volunteered for administrative, health, and religious committees. The new people began building huts for the next arrivals.

Today, Je Yang Camp is a case study in how order can arise from chaos, a living embodiment of the Gilligan’s Island fantasy that an entire society can be built if you have enough bamboo. There are bamboo houses, restaurants, marketplaces, clinics, schools, administrative centers, and weaving centers. There is bamboo furniture and bamboo pigsties. The bamboo Baptist church holds 600 people. Now there is also a concrete stage, a concrete well, and a concrete micro-hydro installation in the river that generates enough power to light the Christmas lights in the church and to power a handful of computers. Acres of gardens line a terraced hillside. Gaggles of boys splash in the river all day.

Jangma Pri Seng spends her days cooking food, cleaning their shack, which, like most shakcs in the camp, houses three families, each squeezed into a ten-foot square room, and caring for her four children and her grandmother, Lazing Lu, who is an unexpected source of comic relief. “DID YOU LIKE RIDING ON THE SCOOTER?” Jangma shouts in the deaf woman’s ear.

“I don’t remember,” she responds. “Was that the thing with all the shaking?”

“DO YOU WANT TO GO BACK TO OUR VILLAGE?”

“No! I can’t walk that far.”

“DO YOU LIKE IT HERE IN THE CAMP?”

“I have nothing to do,” the old woman responds, pausing with perfect timing before breaking into a toothless grin. “It’s so relaxing!”

Part of the reason the camp is so peaceful, says camp director Hting Nam Ja, is because drugs and alcohol are banned. The main evening entertainment is at the churches, which hold a service every night. And every night, people pack into them, sing a few hymns in the Kachin language, and then 5,764 people settle down for an amazingly early and quiet night.

Yet the pleasantness is misleading, says Hting. Just around the corner are the monsoons, the endless rains and winds that last all summer. “What we have won’t survive the rainy season,” he says. The blue tarps tacked to roofs with bamboo strips will be shredded by the winds. “We need corrugated tin. But most of all, we need food and medicine. We have plenty of rice that people have donated, but we have almost no protein. Soon, there will be malnutrition. And when the rains come, so do the waterborne infectious diseases.” The charming, dusty footpaths will become mudpits. The firewood will smolder. And, over everything, looms the constant threat of the Burmese. “Yes, I worry that the army will come,” says Hting. “But there’s nothing I can do about it.”

The refugees also have little choice. They know that, if the army comes, there will be nowhere to run this time. Even if there is a ceasefire, they couldn’t easily return to their villages; having missed the harvest and lost their livestock, they would have no food. Many of them from outlying villages, having been harassed by Burmese soldiers for years, have begun to savor the safety and freedom of living in KIO territory. A few have begun murmuring that—if the KIO survives—it would be nice to see Je Yang take that final step and transform into a permanent town.

Jangma, too, has no illusions about returning to her village anytime soon. “I have no idea how long we’ll stay,” she says, fighting back tears. “I miss my home, I miss being self-sufficient, and I really miss my animals. It’s not perfect here. But we’re out of the rain, we’re not starving, and we’re safe. That’s such a relief. For so long, I had to worry all the time.” When asked if she’d like to send a message to the outside world, she pauses, trying to think of something good, then finally gives up with a shake of her head. “Just have pity on us,” she says.