They are all young women in their 20s and 30s. All of them are Kachin and passionate about their common cause: the human rights of Kachin women, and of Kachins generally. And they are all members of AJWS grantee the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand (KWAT).
I met them in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state in northern Myanmar (Burma), where they set up their office in 2013, after many years of being in exile in Chiangmai, Thailand. Their head office remains in Thailand, reflective of the still-tenuous transition from the previous military regime to a new democratic order with the 2015 elections that saw the sweeping victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.
It was also reflected in their decision to withhold their real names for this post, although they were happy to pose for a group picture with me and my colleagues for AJWS’s website.
“We work on a lot of issues that matter to women, and that is why KWAT is a member of the Women’s League of Burma,” AK told me. All told, 17 different issues, including gender-based violence, land grabbing (by the military, or the government often on behalf of corporations), disappearances, and extra-judicial killings.
But the young women we met were resilient and brave. KP, quiet but determined, has been working with KWAT for more than 10 years, many of them underground for fear of persecution during the decades-long conflict between the Burmese military and ethnic armed groups fighting for self-determination or a true federation that guarantees the rights of ethnic minorities.
“I never told my family the real nature of my work,” KP said, “to protect them as much as myself.” She at one point had to go into exile in Yunnan, China. Even now, the work she does documenting human rights violations is dangerous, and sometimes workshops she’s done have had military intelligence present.
“But I do it because it’s important,” she said. “Not just for Kachin women, but all Kachins and our Kachin identity.”
That sense of identity and duty towards their people and a greater good was something they all felt deeply.
“The pay is low, but the satisfaction I get in doing this and making a difference is priceless,” KJ said. “I learned about KWAT at a workshop in the area along the China border where I was working. I was impressed. They sent me to Thailand to train and build my skills.”
I asked them why documentation was important. Their response was swift.
“To have a record. Hold violators accountable. Prevent future atrocities. For justice.”
“How do you decide what needs documentation?” asked my colleague.
“Sometimes communities come to us asking for help,” said AB. “Other times, we hear of cases that we think are important to document.”
Increasingly, land is becoming a major source of conflict. And they’re called on to document related rights violations. A lot of the time, this is land people have been living on for generations without any formal title. KWAT feels it’s important to document this, as land is intrinsically connected to Kachin identity. KWAT works to connect small farmers to lawyers that may be able to help, while also raising awareness about the importance of registering land titles.
“What hope do you have for the future?” I asked, given the transition to democracy.
They’re cautiously optimistic. They reminded me that there isn’t yet a comprehensive national peace agreement:
“We want a lasting peace, not just a ceasefire agreement. And women haven’t been involved in the process. We should be involved, not excluded.”
Nikhil Aziz is director of Natural Resource Rights at AJWS.