Tea Circle

The international community must listen to the voices of Burma’s internally and externally displaced people

Paul Sztumpf argues that the international community needs to change its humanitarian support strategy.

Not only is a continuation of humanitarian support of internally displaced people (IDPs) and refugees badly needed in Burma, but a change of strategy by the international community is required to get the Burmese government and military to abide by international law and respect the human rights of all its peoples.  

Burma has to be seen in the context of not just the horrific events in Rakhine State but also in light of the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government’s policies leading up to, and its reaction to, those events.

In September 2016, the government of Burma, together with the Kofi Annan Foundation, established an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. The final report was titled “Towards a peaceful, fair and prosperous future for the people of Rakhine”.

The diplomatic language completely strips the report of real meaning. It reduces pressing issues to diplomatic niceties and loses relevance, but more importantly compromises any emerging policy. It only serves the interests of the Burmese government to economically develop this part of Burma on its own terms.

For example, the report recommends: “The Governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh should facilitate the voluntary return of refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar through joint verification, in accordance with international standards and with assistance from international partners. When refugees from northern Rakhine State return from Bangladesh, the government of Myanmar should help create a secure environment and, where necessary, assist with shelter construction for those whose homes have been destroyed.”

This recommendation may be correct in terms of standard UN policy, but in light of the fact that the Burmese government has systematically stripped the majority of Rohingya of documentation which can prove their citizenship and now refuses to even use the name Rohingya, it loses any real relevance. The idea that the same government should create a secure environment, after the Burmese army has on numerous past occasions conducted ethnic cleansing, is at best pitiful.

Language such as “different narrative” and “popular perception in Myanmar” glosses over the real problems in the region and allows the concepts such as “there are no Rohingya in Burma, only illegal immigrants” to not only exist but to become the accepted norm in Burma. This language may well be there to avoid deadlock but for reports to be meaningful, they have to be challenging. An example is the mandate and context of the commission, “In line with the request of the State Counsellor, the commission uses neither the term Bengali nor Rohingya, who instead are referred to as Muslims or the Muslim community in Rakhine”. To allow a people to self-identify is a human right. The name, Rohingya, is central to these people’s identity, legal status and ultimately, I suspect, their future. To compromise on the use of the name is to compromise their very future.

Given the diplomatic nature of the report, documenting this fact in the final version is itself most revealing. Can the Burmese government really be seen as anything more than a most reluctant partner in any solution to the plight of not only the Rohingya but all the other ethnic nationality civilians who make up the million who are currently displaced by years of fighting in Burma?

Whilst the world watches the horrors in Rakhine State unfold, aid is being cut to other people in need in northern and eastern Burma. Some 6000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in those areas have had all aid cut to the camps they have lived in for years. They are not so different to the Rohingya, they have escaped the brutality of the Burmese army, the Tatmadaw. For them, returning to their homes is not really an option at this stage.

Burma Campaign UK has been told, “The returning IDPs do not have access to land in most cases, others have taken the land, the land has been destroyed by land mines, there are other problems with titles and related issues. There is little or no other available work. These issues also have to be dealt with in order for people to realistically return.”

The problems they face are the same the Rohingya will face when and if they are allowed back home. Who will guarantee their safety, is it to be their abusers or the Burman politicians in the capital who have no power over security issues and appear supportive of the army? Or will it be the toothless tigers of the UN, who dare not cross the most outrageous of the red lines drawn up by the Burmese government?

Cutting all aid to IDPs now amounts to attempting to starve them back into the arms of their abusers. IDPs face particular safety problems, they are not refugees in the eyes of international law. They are not the responsibility of a host country or the UNHCR. Humanitarian aid NGOs can only access them with the permission of the government of the country. Often the only realistic way of helping them is through their own people’s aid organisations who have the volunteers and local knowledge but not the funds to help those in need.

To date, most of the funding has been through international aid organisations, whose strategies of promoting a return home through claiming to support secure land tenure rights and cooperation with local authorities are simply not delivering the security and life prospects that are required. Just having programs promoting “awareness of human rights, community participation and access to justice” are woefully out of step with the reality in Burma’s remote ethnic areas. The international community needs to recognise the reality of the situation.

The most affected are the six camps on the Thai-Shan border, Gawng Mung Mong, Loi Tai Leng, Loi Lam, Koung Jor and Loi Kaw Wan. The camp residents, who are predominantly women and children, are from various ethnic groups such as Shan, Lahu, Akha, Wa, Ta’ang Pa-Oh, Lisu, Karen, and Han Chinese. They are struggling to survive in the remote mountain locations, with little cultivable land. The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) have informed Burma Campaign UK that as a result of the peace process in Burma, donors have moved their funds away from the border and have announced they will cut off aid for all six camps. However, the camp residents are still unable to return home. The Burmese army has not adhered to its ceasefire agreement and has continued its military expansion and operations. SHRF urges donors to maintain adequate humanitarian support for the camps.  

There are also more IDP camps in Kachin State suffering similar cuts; many are relatively new, for armed conflict has returned to Kachin State because Kachin armed groups will not do the Burmese army’s bidding. There is a common thread to the underlying problems which bind the IDPs of Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States. It is clearly identified in the report by the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State chaired by Kofi Annan. It is the lack of cooperation with international partners to ensure that return/relocation is carried out in accordance with international standards, the problems with humanitarian access, the lack of local involvement in development decisions, abuse of authority, no democratic oversight of the security services, and no meaningful access to justice.

This is against a background of a long-standing fear and lack of trust in the security forces and now the Aung San Suu Kyi-led government. What has happened to the Rohingya has only reinforced what the ethnic nationalities across Burma already knew – that little has changed in the remote parts of Burma. It is time that the international community recognises this fact and listens to the voices of Burma’s internally displaced people and the refugees in the camps that encircle the country.

For some time now IDP and refugee representatives have been saying that the peace process is stalled, that it is just about development and not about solving political problems, that the needs of their people are not recognised. That funds from the international community are being used to fund this flawed process, that dissenting organisations are effectively excluded from this process. Some go further and say that their leaders are being bought off, that the ceasefire between ethnic armed groups and the army is being used to build up the army’s strength that will eventually be used against the people.The Dawei special economic zone is the most cited example but there is concern around land seizures for the construction of the Myawaddy-Kawkareik Asia highway and the quarrying of Lun Nya mountain in Karen State.

All this is happening against a backdrop of rapidly reducing funds for the camps; in places such as Ei Tu Hta IDP camp, in eastern Burma, food stores will run out by the end of November. Not only is a continuation of humanitarian support of IDPs and refugees badly needed, but a change of strategy by the international community is required to get the Burmese government and military to abide by international law and respect the human rights of all its peoples.

Paul Sztumpf is a semi-retired engineer with 20 years experience in UK local government politics and trade union activity. He is a long time active supporter of Burma Campaign and Burma education charities. He acquired an MA in refugee studies at UEL, with a special focus on Karen issues due to his part Karen ethnicity and links to the community.