Gum Sha Awng reviews the situation of displaced people in Kachin and Shan States.
This post is part of Tea Circle’s “Year in Review” series, which looks back at developments in different fields over the last year.
Background of the current conflict: The conflict that has given rise to the current displacement crisis started in June 2011, putting an end to 17 years of cease-fire between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Government of Myanmar. The demands of the Kachin people and that of most other ethnic groups represented in the signing of the Panglong agreement date back to the creation of the Union of Myanmar in 1948. The Panglong Agreement stipulated a Union created on the basis of autonomy, self-determination and equality for all ethnic groups in the country, but the historical development and politics of the central government have led to a progressive abandonment of these principles, without ever actually implementing them.
In response to these developments in the country’s politics, the Kachin resistance began with the creation of the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) in 1961. After years of fighting, in 1994, the KIO signed a ceasefire agreement with the Government of Myanmar that lasted for 17 years. In 2010‐2011, tensions between the government and the KIO began to grow, in reaction to the KIA turning down the government’s Border Guard Force proposal to ethnic armed groups. Hostilities between the two sides escalated into open conflict on June 9, 2011, causing massive displacement of the local population.
Since then, thousands of villagers have fled from their homes. Civilians fled their villages either due to direct attacks or because of fear of violence from military operations in neighbouring areas. There was loss of life, livelihood and damage to infrastructure. People have become internally displaced persons (IDPs), obliged to live in camps, or with friends and relatives in urban areas, or in the forests across the affected region or in the camps in KIO-controlled areas. Some have crossed inside China. Initially, most people arrived in the camps between June and November of 2011, some of them fleeing directly from the villages to the camps, others hiding in the jungle for up to several months first. People’s displacement was linked directly with conflict. When conflict intensified again in the end of 2012 and beginning of 2013, increased displacement occurred, with more people arriving in IDP camps, in both Government-controlled areas (GCA) and KIO-controlled areas (KCA). The displaced population has reached up to 120,000 and many more have become conflict-affected across Kachin and Northern Shan States.
Since the beginning of the displacement crisis, about 7,000 people have fled across the Chinese border and taken refuge in China, mainly in Yunnan province. Initially, the Kachin Literature and Cultural Association and local business people hosted the displaced population or refugees inside China. However, in late August 2012, the people in camps in Yunnan province were asked to leave the camps and the country within a week. This order was accompanied by heightened security presence at the camps as well as dismantling of their shelters. They were asked to pack their belongings within a limited period. As a result, the displaced population was pushed back into Myanmar, in the middle of the rainy and wet season, to an on-going conflict zone. In most cases, the women, the children and the elderly people have had harsh and traumatic experiences from this push-back, apart from the initial displacement.
The Kachin conflict is one of the most neglected crises in the world. With some limited exceptions over the last six years, international agencies have not gotten access to the IDPs staying in camps in the KIO-controlled area. Local NGOs and religious organisations have played a crucial role in providing humanitarian protection and assistance to the IDPs as they have been for many years the only providers of humanitarian aid.
The Joint Strategy Team (JST) is a coordinating body established by nine national humanitarian organisations which has been at the forefront of delivering humanitarian assistance since the 2011 resumption of conflict in Kachin and Northern Shan States. JST is a group of committed, professional local NGOs providing comprehensive, strategic, principled humanitarian assistance to people affected by armed conflict in Kachin and Northern Shan States. JST has a long trajectory in strategizing and delivering principled assistance in complex contexts and it is highly knowledgeable and exposed to the international humanitarian system. No doubt, the most significant achievement of the JST is its work to protect IDP Rights and satisfy their basic needs over the past six years. JST has been able to reach IDPs in both government- and KIO-controlled areas as it has regular access in both.
The NLD Government and the Humanitarian Situation: The civilians, including the IDPs from Kachin and Northern Shan States, welcomed Myanmar’s new civilian and democratic government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) and its stated commitment and priority to democratization, reconciliation, a peace process and federalism, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s effort for the “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference.” The expectation and hope of IDPs for possible dignity and safe return were very high when NLD government took control and organized the “21st Century Panglong Peace Conference” in the end of August and beginning of September 2016.
However, even though there is a new government, the Armed Forces have regularly hindered and controlled the transportation and distribution of food in Kachin and Northern Shan States, including in the KIO-controlled areas. The district level government administrator issued a letter that agencies need to get prior permission from the state government for any food distribution in IDP camps. These actions contributed to acute food shortages for IDPs as well as the general civilian population in Putao, Tanai, Sumpra Bum Area, Man Win Gyi IDP camp in Kachin State and several villages in Northern Shan State.
Further exacerbating IDPs’ physical and psychological harm, from September to December 2016, fully armed soldiers of the Armed Forces entered multiple IDP camps in Kachin and Northern Shan States to carry out family registration checks and take family photos. These intrusions intimidated IDP families, reinforcing anxiety and fear.
Despite the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement process and the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference, the Myanmar Armed Forces continued and expanded their military offensives, particularly in the KIA outposts of Gidon and Lai Hpawng in Waingmaw township for more than four months since the end of August 2016. Continuous fighting, the use of multiple rounds of airstrikes and heavy artillery increased civilian casualties and intensified fear and anxiety for IDPs. On 16 December 2016, several mortar shells fell near Laiza (the KIO capital city) and three mortar shells landed again near Mung Lai Hkyet IDP camps on the morning of 18 December. The IDPs were extremely terrified and fled to Laiza.
As a result of fighting in Gidon and Lai Hpawng outposts, including the landing of mortar shells near Zai Awng IDP camps, IDP families have fled from their camps since 27th December 2016. The situation was extremely chaotic and precarious. Intense fighting continued in early January 2017 in Nagyang area, which has further resulted in over 6,000 IDPs from Zai Aung, Hkau Shau and Maga Yang IDP camps facing grave safety and security challenges. In desperation for a safe place, over 4,000 IDPs tried to enter China on 11th January 2017, but were immediately pushed back to Myanmar by Chinese security forces. The IDPs were deeply shaken by the experience, and having been forced to relocate several times, they were completely weary. Some elderly IDPs with health problems, such as high blood pressure, were particularly bearing the brunt of the hardship. IDPs experienced physical abuse and discrimination when Chinese border authorities confronted them, pushed them back and threw their personal belongings into the river. Due to the ongoing and fluid conflict situation, IDPs have been fleeing in different directions and some have arrived in Government controlled areas. Others fled to a new location called Sha It Yang under the KIO-controlled area.
Meanwhile, fighting broke out again in Northern Shan State on 20th November 2016, in Mungkoe, Hpawng Sai and 105 Mile trading checkpoints near Muse town, with fighting continuing between the Myanmar Armed Forces and the EAGs of the Northern Alliance (which includes the Arakan Army, KIA, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Ta’ang National Liberation Army). After heavy fighting involving airstrikes in Mungkoe, EAGs withdrew from the area in mid-December 2016. Civilian buildings, such as houses, public schools, and religious buildings were destroyed during this intense fighting.
During the high time of conflict, over 15,000 civilians from Mungkoe, Pawng Sai and Kyu Koke- Pang Hseng area took refuge in Wan Din and Man Hai in China, with the local authorities taking care of the immediate needs of the people and humanitarian response. When the conflict calmed down, the Myanmar government announced that the refugees in China could return. The Chinese authorities also asked them to go back although their safety was not yet guaranteed. When the villagers returned from China, their identities were individually recorded, their photographs taken and they were given identification cards by the government authorities and government armed forces. Without this card, people cannot travel or enter into these areas. Each family has been photographed by the local authorities, and the family photo needs to be kept in front of every house for a surprise check.
There have been several armed clashes which continue to occur in different parts of Northern Shan State and increased militarization is visible particularly in Laukai, Kyu Koke – Pang Hseng, Hpawng Seng, Kutkai, Lashio, Namtu, Mantone townships.
On March 28, 2017, for the first time, the State Counselor visited the IDP camps in Kachin State to get her first hand experience. Many IDP representatives also tried to raise their concerns and requests upon her visit. The IDPs were excited about meeting with the State Counselor since they have waited so long for her visit and have been expecting it for many years. Here are a few highlights regarding the IDP concerns and requests:
Life in the camps is deteriorating with the protracted situation that comes along with the reduction in humanitarian support, particularly with each of them getting only 9,000 MMK (6 USD) per month per person for food assistance. And with this money, it is impossible for them to survive in the camps for a month. After six years, most of their shelters are badly in need of repair. On the other hand, their shelters are constructed within a very limited space for each family and it is overcrowded. There are still challenges like providing new shelters for those who arrived late due to more recent conflict. They also raise concerns about their children’s education since the school dropout rate is high and parents are not able to make an effort for further education of their children. They are concerned that this could damage or have huge implications for their children’s future prospects. Therefore, they requested that more must be done by the government and State Counselor to ensure the dignity of life under protracted displacement, for instance, increase food support, improve shelter and sanitation conditions, confront school dropout rates, and find more effective ways to promote livelihoods. This may not be the long-term solution. However, it is needed to improve the life in the camps.
IDPs wish for safe and dignified return: One of the deepest desires for the IDPs at the moment is their wish to return to their homeland as soon as possible with safety and dignity. Whenever they think about returning to their homeland, the biggest challenge appears to be that of security since the conflict and militarization is still happening and the army is still present in their home villages. Their farmlands are also full of landmines and their livelihoods have been destroyed. Being IDPs, they have experienced multiple displacements, their rights have been violated many times, their daily lives have been fearful and they are greatly concerned with their children’s future. They asked the State Counselor to use her authority for the cessation of hostility between warring parties. Offensive war and use of airstrikes must be stopped. The rights of the IDPs should be recognized and all stakeholders should ensure their participation in decision-making processes that include voluntary, safe and dignified return.
Concern over their housing, land and property: It has been almost six years of displacement from their home villages and they are deeply concerned with their lands and properties back home. Their lives, ways of living, culture and livelihoods are very much linked with their land. While they have been away from their land, banana plantations have encroached and outsiders have been moving into their areas. In this regard, they have asked that displaced communities must be entitled to have their housing, land and property rights restored in their place of origin. And the government must guarantee this. Any encroaching on land must be stopped while the community is away from its homeland.
Protection of the most vulnerable IDPs is a major challenge, particularly as they increasingly take risks to survive in the face of declining access to food assistance. It has pushed them to work outside the camps as daily labour or seasonal workers, even though that is associated with high risk and exploitation. The challenges include human traffickers increasingly targeting adolescents to sell them as child brides or sex workers in China, increasing gender-based violence and more stressful and crowded camps. Education remains woefully inadequate, from limited early childhood education to high school graduates in KIO-controlled areas being unable to access higher education, thus dimming the opportunities for youth in Kachin State. Facing increasing trauma, psychosocial support is increasingly urgent, but largely non-existent. Despite these urgent needs, donors and international governments are shifting funding towards development and economic investments, leaving the humanitarian situation ever more precarious.
Conclusion: It has been almost six years of suffering for IDPs and conflict-affected people with experiences of multiple displacement, deep fear and anxiety for their daily life. Lives in the camps have become unbearable with the decrease of humanitarian assistance. This is forcing people to make decisions on ‘premature return’ to their original villages or accepting new places decided for them without fulfillment of the basic requirements and preconditions for return and resettlement. The costs of a prolonged conflict are high for conflict-affected people and their children’s future. The societal fracture between the peoples of Myanmar will be hard to restore. Therefore, more must be done to ensure the dignity of conflict affected people whose lives are under protracted displacement. All stakeholders, including the international community, need to give immediate attention to the situation in Kachin and Northern Shan. Firstly, to ensure the delivery of food and other humanitarian assistance without delay to those in need, directly and through reputable national humanitarian organisations.
Secondly, to address long term and durable solutions, increased political will of all parties, especially the Myanmar government, Government Armed Forces and Ethnic Armed Groups, is critical. That must include the immediate cessation of any and all military action and hostilities, full respect for civilian protection and a commitment to abide by international humanitarian law and human rights law. A peaceful solution to the conflict in Myanmar is a critical priority for the future of the country and its people. This should be based in open political dialogue that addresses the long-standing issues which are at the origin of this conflict. All the relevant stakeholders and leaders need to take bold decisions to stop the world’s longest civil conflict with a just peace.
Gum Sha Awng has been working with one of the national NGOs, Metta Development Foundation, since 2000 and is currently working as Metta’s National Programme coordinator and overseeing Humanitarian and Community Development programmes. Currently, he is also working as a Secretariat of Joint Strategy Team, which is a collaborative effort by nine local humanitarian agencies that have been involved in the humanitarian response in Kachin and Northern Shan states since 2011.
Photo Credit: JST- Joint Strategy Team