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(S.H.A.N. & Burma's News Published by Burma's Chinese 貌强 19-7-05 )
Burma: displacement continues unabated in one of the world's worst IDP situations
The internal displacement crisis in Burma affects mainly ethnic minority groups, and is particularly acute along the border with Thailand. The military regime's objective of increasing control over minority areas through a policy of forced assimilation and repression of autonomy movements has resulted in decades of conflict that has devastated the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. The largest concentration of internally displaced people (IDPs) is found among the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon ethnic groups in Eastern Burma. As of October 2004, at least 526,000 people were internally displaced in the east of the country, either in hiding or in relocation sites, as a result of widespread human rights abuses committed by the Burmese army and its allies, and – to a lesser extent – insurgent groups. Thousands of Karen and Shan people have also been displaced due to army operations since November 2004. Elsewhere in Burma, displacement has affected large numbers of civilians, but no firm estimate exists on the extent of the problem. In western Burma, the Muslim Rohingya people and other minority groups along the borders with Bangladesh and India continue to suffer harsh discrimination and forced relocation. In addition, hundreds of thousands more have been displaced in schemes to resettle the urban poor and the building of large-scale infrastructure projects.
Despite an impressive variety of local initiatives to provide assistance to the internally displaced, it is well documented that IDPs in Burma face severe food shortages and lack of basic medical facilities. Exposed to ongoing state-sponsored violence and systematic human rights abuses, they lack protection by both the government and the international humanitarian community which is denied access. It is crucial that international actors, in collaboration with local groups, develop a common policy vis-à-vis the government to improve protection and assistance to the internally displaced.
Background: military regime tightens grip on ethnic minorities
Following independence in 1948, Burma was plunged into a civil war between the central government and various armed opposition groups. The most protracted armed conflict has been between the Burman controlled state and ethnic non-Burman nationalities demanding increased political autonomy from the cen-tre. The military regime in Burma, presently known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), seized power in 1988, renaming the country Myanmar the following year. In 1990, the National League for Democracy (NLD), led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won an overwhelming majority in multi-party elections. She was prevented from taking power by the military and has spent most of the years since the elections under house arrest. The military regime has since stayed in control by crushing any sign of political opposition. Repression has been particularly harsh in areas populated by the Karen, Karenni, Shan and Mon ethnic groups. The Burmese army has been deployed throughout the ethnic minority-populated states to fight against insurgency groups.
Since 1989, 17 informal ceasefires have been agreed between the regime and ethnic minority armies, but the eastern border with Thailand remains a conflict zone. This is complicated in some areas by a drugs war involving the Burmese army and rival armed groups. The three main insurgent groups in control of pockets of territory within the border states are the Karen National Liberation Army (armed wing of the Karen National Union - KNU), the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), and the Shan State Army (South) (SSA-S). In January 2004 the KNU held peace talks in the capital Rangoon that resulted in an informal ceasefire. However, skirmishes and human rights violations by the Burmese army have continued to displace people and prospects for a formal peace agreement look bleak.
A violent attack on Aung San Suu Kyi's motorcade on 30 May 2003 that killed several NLD officials led to strong international condemnations. Soon after the attack, the government launched a "roadmap” for political and constitutional reform in August 2003, including plans for the resumption of the National Convention in order to draft a new Constitution. However, when the Convention met in May 2004, most political parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD), remained excluded, and the process has been widely seen as illegitimate both nationally and abroad (ALTSEAN, 16 February 2005; UN CHR, 7 March 2005). Twenty-eight insurgent groups having signed a ceasfire with the government participated in the Convention, 13 of which raised issues about greater local autonomy. This issue has since been excluded from the National Convention agenda by the SPDC.
On 19 October 2004, internal divisions within the SPDC culminated in the arrest of the initiator of the roadmap: Prime Minister and Intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt. While Khin Nyunt had been closely associated with the ceasefire deals signed with a number of ethnic groups, his successor, Lt-General Soe Win, is widely seen as to have consolidated the hard-line fraction of the SPDC (Asia Times, 24 March 2005). While the regime has insisted that the roadmap should move forward, the SPDC has since November 2004 increased its pressure on ceasefire groups to surrender their weapons and launched military offensives in the Karen and Karenni states in an effort to increase further its control over ethnic groups. A 17-year old ceasefire with the Shan State National Army (SSNA) has reportedly ended and military action has again displaced thousands of people in Shan state (HRW, June 2005, p.20).
Number of internally displaced
Estimates of the numbers of internally displaced in Burma vary. According to the most reliable survey which was published in October 2004 by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, at least 526,000 people were displaced at that time in the eastern border areas of Myanmar, namely in the Tenasserim and eastern Pegu divisions and the Mon, Karen, Karenni and southern Shan states. The report says that 365,000 people are in temporary settlements in ceasefire areas controlled by ethnic minority groups, while 84,000 civilians remain in hiding in the forests and mountains of eastern Burma, and another 77,000 are in relocation sites after having been forcibly evicted from their homes (TBBC, October 2004, p.2). In 2002, it was estimated that approximately 2,500 villages had been destroyed, relocated, or otherwise abandoned in eastern Burma. During the past two years the pattern has continued, with at least 240 villages emptied (BBC, September 2002; TBBC, October 2004, p.16). Other huma n rights groups estimate that 650,000 are still internally displaced in the border areas and that at least one million are internally displaced countrywide (HRW, June 2005).
Main causes of displacement
In most parts of Burma, the primary agent of displacement is the Burmese army (the Tatmadaw). However, non-state armed groups have also been responsible for forced displacement. The most prominent example in recent years has been the United Wa State Army (UWSA) rebel group. Between 1999 and 2002, at least 125,000 Wa and other villagers were relocated from northern Shan State to the UWSA's Southern Command area, opposite Thailand's Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai provinces. This movement of Wa people in turn led to the forced displacement of those originally living in the resettlement areas, mostly groups of Shan and Lahu people (LNDO, April 2002).
Although it is difficult to obtain precise and up-to-date information from conflict-affected areas as humanitarian access is denied by the government, there are regular reports of torture, arbitrary executions, sexual violence, indiscriminate use of landmines, and forced recruitment by both government troops and armed rebel groups (UN CHR, 2 December 2004). Peoples' livelihoods are further undermined by the systematic use of forced labour, restricted access of farmers to their land and the systematic confiscation of land and property. The widespread use of forced labour by the Burmese army has resulted in many civilians being unable to earn their living as farmers or labourers, and thus being forced to flee. Forced labour is also a major protection issue for people after they become displaced. Since 1998, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) has continuously documented how forced labour is directly linked to military operations, including the forced recruitment of p orters and their use as human mine sweepers.
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