For one Kachin IDP, hope undimmed by hardship
Bauk Nu Aung has seen her share of difficulties in recent years, but she tells The Myanmar Times she remains determined to do her part to bring peace to war-torn Kachin State
“IF I were a bird, I would fly from this cage,” said the young woman. But escape has, for years, not been possible.
Bauk Nu Aung, 18, is a victim of the conflict in Kachin State, which ignited in 2011 and has displaced tens of thousands in the years since. She has been living in the Maina camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) for more than three years.
“Sometimes I feel deeply hurt, having to live in such poor conditions. I don’t want to spend my life in this camp,” she said.
Maina, in Waingmaw township, Kachin State, is one of the largest IDP camps in the state, with more than 2000 people. There are about 30 other camps in Waingmaw and Myitkyina townships.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as of August there were 172 IDP camps spread across Kachin and northern Shan states, housing nearly 98,000 people.
In the face of these staggering numbers, it can be difficult at times to remember that each IDP has a story, very many of them tales of woe.
Bauk Nu Aung’s entire family lives in a 60-square-foot room, with walls of bamboo matting and a roof of galvanised iron. There is more bamboo matting on the floor.
“There are seven of us squeezed in here,” she said. “I still feel uncomfortable when I have to shower and change in front of the others, including my father. But I have no choice,” she said.
Bauk Nu Aung has straight hair and is wearing a T-shirt with a Kachin logo and a traditional Kachin longyi when she sits down with The Myanmar Times. She sports no accessories but for a small watch. Before she was forced from her home in In Wont Kaung village, she never had to worry about food, clothing or an education. Her parents earned a comfortable living trading spices like curry powder, ginger and peppers, and owned land and cattle.
All of that changed in 2012, when the village was burned down during fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The latter was one of several ethnic armed groups that opted not to sign last year’s nationwide ceasefire agreement. It was the collapse of its own bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in 2011 that precipitated the trials of Bauk Nu Aung and many other displaced civilians.
‘An IDP myself ’
At first, Bauk Nu Aung stayed in a hostel founded by the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) while attending eighth grade in Waingmaw township. When IDPs started arriving at the hostel in large numbers, she says she would hear them crying every night.
“I helped them as much as I could with money my parents sent me. I never thought I would be an IDP one day myself. But then my parents turned up, because they could not stay in their village,” she said.
At that time, her mother was pregnant. Her parents were able to rent a house in Sadone for K50,000 (US$39) a month.
“But we couldn’t pay that any more after my father was unable to work. When the money ran out, we moved to a relative’s house, but couldn’t stay there for very long. When my youngest brother was born, we moved to the KBC hostel with the other IDPs. I cried every night,” Bauk Nu Aung said.
At the hostel, she could continue to study as a ninth grader with support from UN agencies and other donors. But her family needed more money to survive, so after completing ninth grade she had to get a job. Most young people moved to the Chinese border to work.
“My mum wouldn’t let me leave the camp. But she agreed to go with my grandmother to work in a poppy field,” said Bauk Nu Aung.
But the fields were located very far from the town. Bauk Nu Aung took the bus to Shin Kyeik IDP camp before walking the whole night to get to the poppy field.
“There are lots of poppy fields, mostly owned by Chinese and Lisu,” she said.
She would cut the skin from the ripening pods of poppies with a sharp blade to start the flow of resin. Being new to the work, she would often face critical scoldings from the owner.
“The boss didn’t pay me much because of my lack of experience,” she said.
Later, she moved to another poppy plantation owned by an ethnic Lisu. With her greater experience, she could earn 60 yuan ($8.80) a day.
“Most of the workers were heroin addicts,” said Bauk Nu Aung. After a month, she could no longer stand the environment and returned to her family.
“I gave all my earnings, K100,000, to my mum and decided never to go back to those fields,” she said.
Then she was informed by officials from KBC that the IDP families had to move to Maina camp.
“We got here in June 2013,” she said, just in time for the start of the school year. Bauk Nu Aung had not decided then whether she could attend. Her parents had no money. Like most families, hers would struggle to afford the costs of their children matriculating.
“My father wanted me to continue to study, but my mother didn’t. Finally my father decided to send me to a boarding school in Myitkyina because he trusted me to pass the exam,” she said, adding, “My father is my hero.”
While at school, she got K1000 a week in pocket money and used equipment provided by donors. “The other students called me ‘Red Cross’ because of all the Red Cross stickers on my backpack,” she said.
Despite everything, she passed matriculation in 2014 and is now a third-year student at Myitkyina University, studying mathematics. IDP students are very rare because they cannot afford the fees, even as donors have been scaling back their aid to the camps since the beginning of this year. Bauk Nu Aung tried to supplement her income by giving private tutoring at night.
“But sometimes I would have to ask the university if I could pay later because I didn’t have enough money,” she said.
So far, she has kept hold of her aspirations in the face of all the problems.
“I want to be a tutor, sharing knowledge with others,” she said. But conditions are hard: Some young people lose the will to study, while other boys prefer to spend their days playing games or getting high. For some girls and their parents, life as a bride in China is considered the best potential future.
“Drug use is the great challenge among young people in Kachin State. I want to warn them away from drugs, but I’m afraid they would attack me. Their parents can’t control them,” Bauk Nu Aung said.
Her other dream is to help bring genuine peace to her Kachin homeland.
She got the idea when she took part in a peace awareness training program offered by the Nau Shawng Education Network, a local aid group supported by the European Union.
“I understood the role of citizens in the peace process and how I could support the process through the training,” she said.
As a talented trainee, Bauk Nu Aung got the chance to study in the Philippines earlier this year, as one of 10 delegates to the fellow Southeast Asian nation. “I learned a lot from the trip about how people of different religions and ethnicities can live together in peace and harmony. They told me war doesn’t make Muslims or Christians cry. It makes everybody cry,” she said.
She is aware of recent moves to revive the 21st-century Panglong Conference. “But on the ground, fighting is still going on,” she said. “We Kachin alone cannot bring peace. We have to work with the Bamar, Shan, Rakhine and others to get genuine peace,” she said.
“Everybody just wants to go home. But I don’t know when I will be able to escape.”
‘They told me war doesn’t make Muslims or Christians cry. It makes everybody cry.’
Bauk Nu Aung Kachin IDP
Bauk Nu Aung was displaced in 2013 and lives at the Maina camp for internally displaced persons in Waingmaw township, Kachin State.