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Myanmar-China: life in a camp on the border during coronavirus quarantine

Myanmar’s military offered a three-month ceasefire to some ethnic armed organisations to battle the Covid-19 pandemic together.

The Kachin Independence Organisation is quarantining those returning to areas under its control, including internally displaced person camps

Faced with the threat of a Covid-19 pandemic which could have dramatic effects in a country with poor health infrastructure, Myanmar’s government and many ethnic armed organisations have taken steps to put aside their ongoing conflict to fight a common enemy.

Children receive food in a shelter for displaced people in Myitkyina, a city in a government-controlled part of Kachin State. More than 107,000 people are displaced by conflict in Myanmar’s north. Image credit Ann Wang, Reuters

Myanmar has so far tested more than 17,000 people for Covid-19 of which 199 resulted in positive cases out of a population of 54 million. Along the country’s north-eastern border with China, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), one of the dozens of organisations which have been engaged in on-off conflict with the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) for decades, started making preparations against the pandemic outbreak already in February.

It indeed established a Covid-19 prevention committee, started importing test kits from Singapore and China, initiated social distancing policies and public health campaigns, and built handwashing stations and quarantine facilities.

No cases have yet been reported in KIO-controlled areas but if they arise, patients will be sent to the KIO hospital in its headquarters of Laiza, which has 50 ICU beds and 10 ventilators.

The KIO and Myanmar officials had no formal communication relating to Covid-19 response planning until April 27, when the government announced a committee to engage with certain ethnic armed organisations including the KIO to fight the pandemic.

Volunteers conduct a daily temperature screening of those in quarantine at Je Yang internally displaced person camp near Laiza, Myanmar. The camp, with a population of 8,700, is the largest of Kachin’s IDP camps. Image credit Ring Nu Awng

In the following weeks, the KIO committee met with the Kachin State government and Myanmar military to discuss the most effective ways to coordinate their coronavirus responses, with the KIO emphasising its desire to prioritise fighting the pandemic over armed conflict. The Kachin State government donated K5.7 million (US$4000), and both the government and military donated prevention supplies to the KIO.

Later, on May 9, the Tatmadaw announced a ceasefire until the end of August with all ethnic armed organisations across the country excluding areas where government-designated terrorist groups have taken the position – most notably, in Rakhine state, where the conflict between the Arakan Army and Myanmar military has severely skyrocketed in recent months.

An estimated 107,000 ethnic Kachin have been displaced by conflict since a ceasefire between the KIO and Tatmadaw broke down in 2011, and they now live in 173 different camps.

As part of its pandemic preparations, the KIO has also taken steps to protect the 38,000 living in internally displaced person (IDP) camps in its territory – including through mandating a two-week quarantine for anyone returning from outside cities or towns since the end of March.

Ring Nu Awng has lived in Je Yang IDP camp near Laiza for 9 years now when he fled the town of Nam San Yang with his parents and sister. With a population of 8,700, Je Yang is the largest of Kachin’s IDP camps.

He seeks to use his photos to bring to life the stories of displaced people like himself and their experiences facing the long-term effects of civil war. Last year he started studying photojournalism and video editing in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, but this was cut short when the global pandemic hit. He made the 1,100km trip home, to learn he would need to enter quarantine.

Possessions are packed to move to a new quarantine facility in Je Yang camp. Image credit Ring Nu Awng

Here is his story

I returned to Laiza from Yangon on March 29. When I arrived, health workers took my temperature and gave me a certificate, and then I continued to my home in Je Yang IDP camp.

Coming from the city, everything in the camp looked different than I remembered, but my family’s welcome did not change. I could see they were concerned about the virus, because of the camp’s high population density.

After greeting my family, I went to the camp hospital, where they recorded my name and travel history, and then I went home and fell asleep.

People in quarantine at Je Yang camp near Laiza, Myanmar. Image credit Ring Nu Awng

Soon after, my sister woke me up and told me I had been called to the camp management committee office, where a health official told me I needed to immediately enter quarantine for fourteen days. I didn’t even have the chance to collect my belongings.

When I reached the quarantine facility, I was greeted by four others who had also returned from Yangon that day. We were the first people to be quarantined under the new KIO policy, and we soon found that few preparations had been made. We would be staying in an empty house without any facilities besides an outdoor hand washing station.

Our families were responsible for bringing us food and supplies, including drinking water and blankets. Once a day, volunteers came to take our temperature.

Day by day, we sat and talked to pass the time. We shared the food we had and scrolled through news updates on our phones. In the evenings, we bathed in the stream.

A week passed, and on the evening of April 5, we were informed we needed to move to the camp’s middle school, about 10 minutes’ walk from where we were staying. We called our families and they helped us to carry our belongings.

A station to monitor who goes in and out of the Je Yang IDP camp. Image credit Ring Nu Awng

When we arrived at the middle school, we were informed that our families could no longer send us food in metal tiffins. When my mother heard this, she burst into tears and I felt sorry for her and our family. Our families are creative, though, and starting the next morning, they sent us food wrapped in banana leaves or plastic bags.

Each of us was provided with a classroom in which to sleep. We prepared our beds on school benches. More people who were returning from their villages soon joined us.

On April 12, my quarantine period ended, and I was finally able to join my family in the camp. What a journey to stay with the ones I love…

A bed is prepared in a classroom on top of school benches. Image credit Ring Nu Awng


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