Gavin McGillivray, Head of the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID), made a five-day visit to Chin State in December 2015, organised by ActionAid Myanmar.
He spoke with villagers, elders, youth groups, pastors, civil society organisations, schoolteachers, health-workers, NGOs, Chin State ministers and displaced people. His purpose was to listen and better understand the challenges and aspirations of Chin people.
He stayed in Zimte village, Tidim Township and Vanzang village, Hlantlang township. In these villages and others, Gavin was hugely touched and grateful for the generous welcome and hospitality he received from the villagers.
We bring an excerpt of his diary:
“Chin State has some 480,000 people fragmented by mountains, remoteness, ethnicity, language and religion. Some 80% live in mountainside villages largely reliant on precarious shifting cultivation on steep forest-clad slopes. Roads are few, unmade and frequently fractured by floods and landslides. There are no airports. Mobile coverage is scanty.
Most people are poor – the result of agriculture of low and declining yields, meagre diets, difficulty in reaching markets, paucity of viable alternative livelihoods, poor schooling and healthcare, two decades of armed struggle for greater autonomy, and a seeming reluctance of the many different Chin ethnic groups to come together to collaborate in advocacy or enterprise. The State’s vulnerability was exposed by devastating floods and landslides in July and August 2015 – which destroyed homes, schools, roads and bridges – leaving thousands homeless.
Many Chin people leave their villages – emigrating elsewhere in Burma, to neighbouring India (where the Chin and Mizoram Mizo peoples share a common language) and beyond. There are significant Chin diaspora populations in USA and Norway.
Of the majority who stay, a lot seem nonplussed by the manifold difficulties confronting them: seeing yields of traditional rice and maize falling and failing with year-on-year dwindling rainfall; knowing little of alternative crops and with too little capital to fund pilots; inexperienced with livestock (which we were told either eat the crops or die exasperatingly often); facing crippling expense in reaching markets or health clinics over earthen paths and lanes frequently rendered impassable during the monsoon; women finding themselves excluded from leadership and voice; witnessing school-teachers routinely absent themselves; having virtually no recourse in the event of illness or injury; far from networked electricity and with little experience of solar or run-of-the-river-hydro power.
Chin State Government Ministers spoke feelingly of the need for investment in roads, education, water & sanitation, irrigation and agricultural diversification – and for help for people to re-establish livelihoods following the flooding and landslides. We had found the displaced people camp at No.2 High School in reasonably good shape. The camp leader asked for more blankets and floor coverings to ward off the cold. The State Government has assigned land for new housing for the IDPs just outside of Hakha – and it is intended that they move there in March / April next year.
Out-migration seems a rational strategy for individuals – but migration without skills, capital or citizenship upon arrival (as is usually the case) can simply move the locus of poverty. Those that manage to establish themselves abroad do send back remittances – but these mostly seem to help villagers cope rather than set themselves or their communities on more promising trajectories.
Such trajectories are not easily unearthed. There should be some scope for improving agricultural productivity through improved practices and diversification – but the steep terrain, climatic unreliability, remoteness and wretched roads will always make it challenging to become market-competitive. Most non-farming village-based enterprises will face the same drawbacks. The cost per capita of delivering any public services or development assistance will always be high relative to most other parts of Burma. Thoughts of capitalising on Chin’s location between India, Bangladesh and the rest of Burma to become a regional trading hub are rendered barren by the vertiginous topography.
What development strategies might be worth exploring? Chin’s potential competitive advantages spring from the same well as its drawbacks. The impassable mountains are also impossibly beautiful; the bewilderingly divergent ethnicities a source of exceptional cultural riches. Trekking and other community-based tourism offer the potential to transform remoteness from a millstone into an attraction. Chin textile weaving and other handicrafts should command ready demand in Burma’s growing tourist market – and could have sufficiently high value per unit weight to outweigh elevated transport costs. The same high unit value characteristic should be sought in endeavours to identify viable commercial agricultural diversification initiatives – with low-weight high-value products such as spices and essential oils possibly worth appraising (ActionAid is piloting some notable initiatives in community-based handicrafts and tourism in the dry zone). But for the majority for whom commercial agriculture will not be viable; more is needed on helping develop more resilient crops and farming systems including water storage and irrigation, improving nutrition, strengthening schooling (which will necessitate finding a way to incentivise teachers to stick in remote locations) and adding skills training – in agriculture and related activities, alternative livelihoods if viable ones can be identified – but also in skills in demand in migration destinations such as Mizoram.
In making the case for such initiatives – the different Chin peoples would usually be stronger acting together. The apparent relative success of the recently-established broadly-based and inclusive Chin Committee for Emergency Response and Rehabilitation (CCERR) might provide a model or even a foundation for more effective advocacy on behalf of Chin State development with the incoming government and the international community. Amongst the latter, one propitious target could be those who have (or could develop) a particular emotional connexion with the Chin people, notably the more wealthy Chin diaspora and targeted other high-net worth individuals who might be persuaded and organised to remit backing for projects that are transformational rather than simply help the Chin people get by as best they can. This is what they have done for hundreds of years. They deserve better.”
DFID funds several development programmes that operate in Chin State, including the Livelihood & Food Security Trust (LIFT) (http://www.lift-fund.org/search/node/chin) and the Three Millennium Development Goal Fund (3MDG) (http://www.3mdg.org/where-we-work).
DFID is helping the people of Chin State recover from last year’s floods and landslides through these programmes, and through contributions to the World Food Programme, the UN Myanmar Emergency Response Fund (ERF), the UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF), the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office (ECHO), and the START Network.