FOR the thousands of ethnic people who have fled conflict in Burma (Myanmar), memories of home come with daunting reminders of a war that has forced them to abandon their livelihoods and seek shelter.
Where there are promises for peace and calls for ethnic armed organisations (EAOs) to surrender their weapons and concede to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), conflict remains active as civilians bare the brunt of its devastating consequences. Many have sought safety in IDP and refugee camps as State sponsored media works to undermine the efforts by the international community to draw attention to human rights abuses. This narrative has dangerous implications as it suggests that the Burma Army is the only task force armed with the capability to protect the country’s interests, despite being at the expense of further targeting already marginalised groups.
Shan people are one of eight majority ethnic groups, accounting for 9 percent of the country’s population of 55 million. Their plight began in 1996 when a mass forced relocation program was launched by the Tatmadaw Army of Burma. Systematic human rights abuses took place. Shan people fled to the Thai-Shan border and have been living in temporary shelters for decades – yet they are not officially recognised as refugees by Thailand. As reductions in border-aid are felt throughout the region, it is more keenly felt in Shan camps as they lost all food funding in October 2017.
Koung Jor is one of the six Shan camps. Established in 2002, of the nearly 400 people living there, many do not have an identification card, which limits prospects for work and education – therefore only intensifying the severity of their situation.
As politicians and armed actors work towards dismantling years of violence and oppression through a tail spinning peace process, ethnic people who have been long persecuted by violence at the hands of the Burma Government and military have largely given up hope for any sort of change. While accessing information and news about their home State remains a challenge, preserving collective livelihoods is priority as funding cuts deal another blow.
For many in the camp, ideas about democracy are deeply rooted in the traumatising memories of being forced to flee under treacherous circumstances. When necessity and the need for survival replaces any hope for peace in a country, it is testament to how the Burmese government has failed its people.
Nay Nay, 50, is the clinic coordinator at Koung Jor. She is one of the few in the camp who is literate in both Shan and Burmese. She says many are not familiar with what the peace process. Nay Nay strongly believes that if people in her community could read and write, they would be much more interested in the events taking place inside the country.
“People can’t check the news because they can’t read. They were deprived of this when they were young and not allowed to study their own language. I had to study Shan in secret,” she said.
The fact that many are illiterate is indicative of a deliberate attempt by Burma’s Army to erase Shan history and culture. For many, camps offer solace: a quiet, peaceful and safe haven from the atrocities they have left behind. And yet, the fact that the camps remain out of reach of the Burmese government and military does a disservice to their livelihoods – access to news and information that impacts them is largely unavailable. As a result of this disconnect, their concerns are not being brought forward.
Nang Mya has been living in Koung Jor camp since its inception after fleeing from Hui Yao in Shan State with her family. She has since found a job in the nearest town as a tailor with a steady income.
Nang Mya is illiterate. She has no means of getting information on what is happening in Shan State. Instead, she relies heavily on her memories of war in her assessment of how the situation remains very much unchanged. She knows fighting is ongoing and that are soldiers are increasing their presence in ethnic areas.
“I can’t think about the news because I don’t have access to the situation. I worry I will get a heart attack if I hear too much bad news,” she says. When I ask her if she thinks peace is possible, she laughs haphazardly before her eyes steady and focus on me as she asks if I want to know how the Burma Army killed her Father.
“My future is in Thailand. I’m happy here. My children can study and I can work,” she adds.
For some, it is not a question of accessing news, but rather a disagreement with the media’s agenda and prioritisation of which conflicts are worth reporting on.
Tai Leng, 25, has been an English teacher in the camp for three years. His hope for peace in Burma is fading with the continued lack of inclusion of ethnic people in international media coverage.
“IDPs and refugees are not the target audience for media because they cannot read. There is no space that gives them a chance to say whether aid should be cut. It’s hard for them to get involved because they lost citizenship when they fled to Thailand.”
Hope for the future rests in the camp community where Tai Leng identifies another gap in people’s interest in Burma media – many living in the camp were born in Thailand and have Thai citizenship. It is an identity crisis that leaves them between wanting the benefits of being Thai, while striving to maintain their Shan culture and identity.
17-year-old Pad is a testament to this notion. She was barely one year old when her family fled conflict in eastern Shan State.
She attends school in Thailand, has a Thai ID card and plans to study English for Communications in Chiang Mai. Her knowledge of Burma comes from her parents, as she is unfamiliar with the issues taking place and remains uninterested because the news does not impact her.
This does not surprise Koung Jor camp leader, Sai Leng. “Younger people get news from the Thai side. Kids here arrived very young, so they know very little about Shan culture.” He speaks to the situation in Shan State as border aid dwindles.
“Our people have suffered a lot. In our Shan State, 70 percent live in the countryside. If someone says ‘the Burmese are coming,’ they think ‘the Burmese’ is all Burmese, not just the Burma Army. Everyone runs.”
The lack of interest in news, Sai Leng suggests, is a result of a lack of education and priority on securing livelihoods. When the cuts to food aid were announced, the camp communities had just three months notice. As leader in the camp, Sai Leng takes an active role by sharing news of interest, including updates on funding cuts, the Rohingya crisis and the peace process.
“The government is trying to show the world that everything is okay, but the NLD (National League for Democracy, the ruling party) can’t control the military. The Burma Army is very chauvinistic, they think that they’re the best. I don’t think that they want peace,” he says.
Since the funding cuts, it has become harder for the community in Koung Jor to find work. All of the employment opportunities are short term because of its seasonal nature. The lack of work amounts to limited options for them to make money.
There is an overwhelming fear in the camps that the war is far from over. Many people believe that things are getting worse as media freedom declines and the NLD continues to play puppet to the Burmese military operations, while simultaneously disregarding any influence of the international community.
Lao Harn, another one of the English teachers, is frustrated. “The NLD announced that they have democracy – but they don’t. The rules are all on paper, but we know there’s an even bigger war coming.”
By Maggi Quadrini, Communications Officer at the Shan Women’s Action Network.