MEET BAWK KAI MAI
Bawk Kai Mai is five years old and lives in Kachin State, Myanmar. She attends one of the Early Childhood Development Centres we support in the remote mountain camps near the border of China.
Children on the Edge works alongside local communities in some of the toughest places in the world to transform the lives of overlooked children by co-creating protective environments where they can safely live, play, learn and grow. To do this, we work closely with the people and places that have the most impact on the child: the family, classroom, community and society.
If families lack the resources to meet needs and solve problems, their children are pushed to the edge. They become poorly protected and are at risk of abuse, exploitation, exclusion and neglect, causing irreversible damage.
On the 20th June each year, the world commemorates the strength, courage, and resilience of millions of refugees. Around the world more than 50 million people have fled their homes, and over half of these are children.
The refugee children we work with in Lebanon, Bangladesh and Myanmar all show great strength, courage and resilience every day, surviving in some of the toughest places around the world. On World Refugee Day 2019, we wanted to take the time to share some of their thoughts and experiences.
Kachin State is the northernmost state of Myanmar (also known as Burma) and is bordered by China to the north and east. The Kachin people are an ethnic minority in Myanmar, a highland indigenous people with rich traditions.
Historical tensions between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Myanmar government have intensified over the last seven years, placing civilians at huge risk.
A 17-year ceasefire was broken by Burmese troops in June 2011, heavy shelling near civilian populations was commonplace and women reported many incidents of systematic rape by the Burmese Army.
Human Rights Watch reported government soldiers blocking needed humanitarian aid, torching villages and firing on innocent civilians and Fortify Rights have extensive evidence of systematic torture being used as an attack on civilians.
Conflict intensified again at the start of 2018 and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimate that around 97,000 people remain displaced in Kachin State, spread across 140 camps. Our partners estimate the numbers on the border to be more in the region of 120,000.
More than 46% of those displaced are living in areas beyond government control where international actors have very limited humanitarian access. Those living in the crowded Internally Displaced People's (IDP) camps are terrified, cut off from vital aid and still subject to regular military attack.
As central government appears determined to crush the last remaining pocket of armed resistance in Myanmar, their recent tactics have been increasingly harsh. With significant natural resources and political influence at stake, the human tragedy is worsening, and largely ignored by the international community.
Thousands of Kachin children are forced to cope in very difficult circumstances with little support for their healthy development. Many children here under the age of 6, have known little else but war.
Daily life offers few chances of respite from the effects of violence and they have no access to early years education, creative play and psychosocial support.
Around a year ago, we reported how the Kachin communities we work with in the remote displacement camps of Kachin State Myanmar, were beginning to lose hope. Having faced over seven years of being trapped in high altitude camps, cut off from basic services and humanitarian aid, the motivation that carried them through the first season was waning.
Living through what they describe as a ‘slow genocide’, while international attention remains on other crises around the world, 100,000 Kachin civilians endure terrible conditions, and remain ignored. Throughout 2018 these people have faced the threat of continued forced displacement, spontaneous return, land grabbing, and a continuing decrease of humanitarian aid. This has all increased the difficulty of providing for their families, facilitating transportation and facing weather conditions of less than minus ten degrees during winter.
Not only are children aged 3-6 cut off from early learning facilities, but our local partners (KDG) report that most camps have limited opportunities for playing, with terrain being unsuitable to build playgrounds, and little access to play materials. Consequently many older children disappear to the forests and find dangerous places to play.
The displaced communities we work with in Kachin State Myanmar have displayed incredible resilience over the years. Despite living in harsh high altitude conditions in the camps, with no access to services, they have been gathering together to ensure safe spaces for their children to learn, play and recover from what they’ve been through.
Currently, the feel in the camps is one of despondence. It has been a year since the last round of peace-talks and there are none planned for the near future. The conflict in the area runs hot and cold, making it impossible for people here to ever settle or feel safe. The last military attack was just a month ago.
There are 100,000 displaced Kachin people on the borders, and after nearly seven years, they are still completely trapped. Their route home is littered with landmines, and even if they could survive the journey back, their land has now been sublet by the government to Chinese companies to use for banana plantations, or occupied by drug cartels.
Our Asia Regional Manager, John Littleton returned from visiting the camps here last month. He says “It’s the displaced civilians that pay the price for this conflict. They are caught in a political gridlock, and the pride and momentum that carried them through the first season of living in these challenging conditions is beginning to fade”.
Aid agencies are still not granted access to many conflict areas, leaving displaced communities cut off from adequate assistance. Children on the Edge remain the only international organisation providing early years support in the most remote camps along the border.
As the world’s attention remains elsewhere, this embattled civilian population are not only being forgotten, but beginning to resign themselves to their fate. It is vital that we maintain our support to the communities we are working with at this time.
Back the call for peace and accountability by taking action via Burma Campaign UK, and consider becoming one of our regular donors to provide stable support for work like this. For further information about the situation in Kachin, visit our project page.
Displaced families in Kachin State, Myanmar spent last Christmas Day in an emergency shelter, and New Years Day in a hastily constructed bunker as mortar shells blasted around them.
This situation has become commonplace for hundreds of Kachin children, who have fled conflict and are surviving with their families in Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) camps on the border of Myanmar and China. The hardest to reach of these camps are situated high in the mountains, with freezing conditions and very little access to aid. Families have fled to these remote areas in the hope of finding safety, and yet are subject to regular military occupation and attack.
Spending Christmas Day in a shelter is not the worst these children have endured. 3,000 civillians from Zai Awng camp have endured regular shelling and military occupation, forcing them to the Chinese border a number of times, only to be beaten and turned away. A new settlement called Sha It Yang was eventually created, but it lacks clean water and with one road in and out, is cut off from basic supplies.
Children have witnessed terrifying attacks, been forced to hide in the jungle overnight, lost many of their friends and family on the journey, only to end up in a camp with appalling conditions. Our teacher here said “We are doing the best we can, but naturally the children are quieter, less active and less able to be engaged and creative”.
Thanks to the response of Children on the Edge supporters, we’ve been able to ensure that the two new Centres built in the new camp are warm and safe places, where children can begin to recover from what they’ve been through. Last New Year’s fireworks across the border were terrifying for them, we are hoping this year they feel safe enough to enjoy them.
Children on the Edge remain the only organisation providing ongoing support to young children in these remote camps. Going into 2018 we will be actively seeking support for this crisis that the world has overlooked. One teacher said “The wider community is so tired of the fighting, they just want to go home, and they don’t understand why the world isn’t paying attention”.
Find out more about our work in Kachin State.
Burma’s Kachin people have suffered enormously at the hands of their own government in an ongoing conflict which has worsened in recent months. After military attacks and occupation, thousands of displaced people have been forced from Zai Awng camp and are now struggling in a hastily constructed settlement in northern Kachin.
We are currently the only international organisation working with this forgotten community in the remote mountain camps. Our Asia Regional Manager, John Littleton visited this extremely hard-to-reach area of Burma in April 2017 and found that the situation has changed drastically, with many children now in increasingly desperate need of support.
We’ve been working for a number of years in high-altitude, internally displaced people's (IDP) camps, including Zai Awng, providing education for 629 Kachin children, in 14 Early Childhood Development Centres. These safe spaces have given young children vital opportunities to learn, play and get the support they need, so that they are able to grow and develop, in spite of the daily realities of war.
However, the intensified conflict in recent months, including air attacks and shelling has made these camps increasingly unsafe. Thousands of people were forced to flee Zai Awng late last year, looking for refuge over the border in China, only to be met with beatings and forced back, before fleeing again to stay safe. They hid in the jungle until troops withdrew. Some returned to the old camp but were not seen again, so the remaining 2,000 people built a new camp and called it Sha It Yang. This terrified and traumatised community have nowhere left to run, and are living in appalling conditions with little food and no clean water.
Three teachers from our Centre in the original camp in Zai Awng have remained with the community and re-built a safe space for children in Sha It Yang. They have set up two classes but there is need for another four.
Children are in desperate need of support after what they have been through, with teachers reporting that the even Chinese New Year firecrackers heard across the border are now terrifying for them. One teacher said, “We are doing the best we can, but naturally the children are quieter, less active and less able to be engaged and creative. The wider community is so tired of the fighting, they just want to go home, and they don’t understand why the world isn’t paying attention”.
In the northern camps of Kachin state there is not a single other international organisation offering ongoing support to children. As the area remains an active war zone, access to the camps is difficult. Aid agencies sporadically operate in the central government controlled regions of Kachin State, but leave when the operating environment becomes too difficult.
We are appealing for donations to ensure we can both maintain and expand our work here, to meet the escalating need in the new camp.
If you are unable to support the work here financially, please share this blog where you can to direct attention to a terrified group of civilians, currently forgotten by the international community, yet in need of critical help.