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“The cycles of conflict and displacement must be brought to an end”: The IDP crisis in northeast Myanmar

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A Commentary by Lahpai Seng Raw

In mid-March, over 100 representatives of civil society groups, local and international non-governmental organisations, the United Nations, Western embassies and other international agencies met in Myitkyina at a conference hosted by the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee and Joint Strategy Team.1 Entitled the “Internally Displaced Persons-Related Multi-Stakeholder Meeting for Kachin and Northern Shan States”, the purpose was to discuss government plans to close the camps that house over 100,000 civilians who have been displaced from their homes since the resumption of conflict after 17 years of ceasefire between the government and Kachin Independence Organisation in June 2011.2

Discussions were wide-ranging. Concerns were deeply expressed by local participants about the continuing conflict, the vulnerability and insecurity of IDPs, the loss of land and homes and the problematic legal framework,3 the dangers from landmines, and the lack of inclusive political and economic reform. There was also anxiety in local communities about the threat of the Covid-19 virus for which IDPs are very under-prepared. On every level, IDPs are in a very challenging position after many years of conflict and displacement. But, if effective and meaningful solutions are to be found, there was one common theme: IDPs need to be full participants at the centre of discussions and decisions that will affect their lives.

The following is an edited version of the opening remarks to the meeting by Lahpai Seng Raw.

Following the ceasefire era that began in the early 1990s, I found myself engaged head-on in initiating contacts and supporting the rehabilitation and resettlement of around 10,000 Kachin refugees who were taking sanctuary across the border in China. These events occurred not far from the Multi-Stakeholder Meeting in Myitkyina. Thirty years later, it is a tragedy of the greatest proportions to be witnessing the same crisis in humanitarian emergency – only, this time, the scale of displacement is more than tenfold higher. Currently, there are over 107,000 internally displaced persons recorded in 173 camps in Kachin State and northern Shan State.

This experience means that we must take a very sober assessment of the realities that all the peoples of the Kachin and northern Shan States are presently facing. It needs to be remembered that, when war resumed again in the two territories in 2011, many local people fled again to China. This time, however, the Chinese authorities pushed them back to Myanmar, and the international human rights principle of “non-refoulement” was violated. As a result, many Kachins and other local peoples became IDPs in their own country without the protection that international Refugee Law should provide them.

Looking further afield, it is also important not to confine analysis only to the situation in northeast Myanmar. Many nationality peoples in Myanmar are still suffering conflict or displacement: whether Rakhines or Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State; Shan and Ta’ang communities in Shan State; or Karen and Karenni peoples who remain in refugee camps in Thailand. Land loss and displacement is a countrywide crisis, blighting the lives of so many families and communities.

By any international standards, the present situation is very bleak. This means that, when we discuss a framework for the “Safe and Dignified Return and Resettlement” (R & R) of IDP communities, we have to make a very realistic assessment of the causes of displacement. At the same time, we need to work hard to find solutions that can help the achievement of a meaningful peace. We all know that our peoples are fed up with living in camps and want to go home. But if we are to truly support humanitarian relief and ameliorate living conditions, we need to consider the challenges that they may face upon their return. For many of those displaced, their lands have been confiscated, their homes destroyed, entire villages burned down, and the forests around their homes have become riddled with landmines.

Against this backdrop, we have to keep reminding ourselves – and the world outside – that IDPs are people. They are not simply a category or identity on a piece of paper that can be filed away. As human beings, they have the human right to be treated as equal citizens – and not as a subgroup who have only limited rights through no fault of their own. The plight of IDPs and other marginalised peoples should not be regarded as exceptional challenges in our country. Rather, their future wellbeing is integral to peace and security throughout the Myanmar state.

Today, our country is at a difficult crossroads. Although displacement has increased since governmental transition began in 2011, more opportunities to improve humanitarian aspects around the IDP crisis should – in theory – exist. We need to build upon these new dynamics. In terms of protection, there is increased visibility, reduced isolation and increased access in conflict-torn areas of the country. At the same time, space has opened up for the media to report, and the international community has become better informed about what is happening on the ground.

There must be concerns, however, that we have yet to take advantage of these new opportunities. Formidable tasks lie ahead. But, in the initiation of a multi-stakeholder forum, an important example is being set by local community groups. We are grateful to our hosts, the Joint Strategy Team, an alliance of 10 local CSOs responding to the humanitarian situation in Kachin and northern Shan States, and the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee, another entity that has been entrusted to ensure that the voices and concerns of the people should be at the centre of discussions about their lives. Mention should also be made of the Peace-talk Creation Group, which brings together community leaders and Kachin elders. The PCG are go-betweens in negotiations between the government and the KIO. They are also instrumental in bringing out civilians from the war-zones to safety in collaboration with church leaders and the different sides in the conflict.

As endeavours by these networks highlight, community-based organisations are very active and civil society is highly alert in northeast Myanmar. It is thus encouraging for local peoples to see such widespread representation by different actors who can come together in a multi-stakeholder forum such as this. This includes delegates from UN agencies, the International Committee of the Red Cross, INGOs and CSOs as well as IDPs who include the majority but most vulnerable group in local society: women. In any discussion of displacement and human rights, it should never be forgotten that it is women who often suffer the greatest hardships in conflict.

With such diverse representation, it is possible to have every confidence that we can collectively promote the rights of IDPs and raise awareness about durable solutions that have long been needed. Collaborations, alliances, networks and partnerships have a multiplier effect when responding to humanitarian emergencies. Through such broad outreach, we can help reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights for the most marginalised peoples and establish conditions under which justice and respect for international law will be maintained. Partnership will also strengthen our emphasis on the rights of “the people”, bringing the human face into focus – and away from the impersonal characterisation of displaced peoples by the anonymous term of “IDPs”. It is the most vulnerable and neglected people in our communities who, after all, are the main stakeholders.

Such common endeavour, then, should be an essential first step. But, to put goals into practice, it will also be important to step outside the limitations of the self-interests of individual organisations. The tasks ahead should be approached collectively from the perspective of the needs of the people on the ground. To do this, it is important to avoid a simply “pragmatic approach" that reduces R & R programmes to basic minimal services. Rather, experience has shown from around the world that the bar should be set far higher if we are to support justice, life-enhancing care and meaningful change for the people. The highest standards of aid delivery in R & R must be aimed for and maintained if a new cycle of marginalisation and grievance is not to occur. Education, especially, needs to be a key priority when we consider the future of our young people in integrating R & R goals. All our visions and plans should give them hope and every prospect of a positive future.

It is also important to learn lessons from the past. Given the long-standing patterns of crisis and humanitarian emergency in our country, we need to view the challenges holistically. Dealing with such issues as IDPs, conflict, aid and development as separate imperatives will only cause the instabilities and inequalities to continue. Indeed, they may well metamorphose into new forms. That has been our experience in the Kachin and Shan States during the past three decades of both war and peace. Instead, the need is to pay attention to the longstanding political problems of ethnic discrimination, marginalization, militarisation and an unequal status quo that continue to underpin conflict and the failures to achieve national reform. As humanitarian actors, our focus is on improving the conditions of displaced peoples. But their sufferings can never be removed from the political picture. The root causes of problems must also be addressed. If R & R is to succeed, the cycles of conflict and displacement must be brought to an end.

Tragically, there is also another grave emergency that needs to be considered at this time. This raises questions for local organisations and also to international agencies to which we look for help. Do our people have enough information about the coronavirus? Are there sufficient testing kits, preparation and medical training for doctors and nurses in the field? Equally, it also needs to be recognised that this is not only a challenge in the Kachin and Shan States. The majority of the Myanmar public are also vulnerable and lacking information. Health education and preparation are very urgent for the whole country.

It is important not to over-speculate during a time of global emergency. But when we see the Covid-19 crisis in such countries as China, South Korea and Italy where there are extended medical systems and health outreach, we need to pay special attention to IDPs and the most vulnerable in our communities who are dependent on outsiders for charity and care. IDPs live in always cramped and precarious conditions. At this uncertain moment of health need, we have a special responsibility not to let them down.

These, then, are just some opening thoughts on the plight of internally displaced persons in the operational context today. They may seem wide-ranging. But I believe that we need to be both ambitious and realistic if we are to truly face up to the challenges ahead. Given the failures of the past, there is no room for complacency. As a matter of the highest priority, we need to put the human rights and security of the IDPs at the centre of our considerations over the issues of return and resettlement. That should be our first principle. Then, as resettlement moves along, we constantly need to think again and again about this necessity to protect the rights of IDPs and secure their future livelihoods. This is a task that will be generational in scale.

Finally, a word of caution. In 1994, there was great hope among refugees and IDPs in Kachin State and northern Shan State that peace was coming to the country. In 2020, it is to be trusted that such hopes will not be disappointed once again. Many people are deeply worried in local communities, asking whether there has ever been a civil war where the resettlement of IDPs is pushed through into areas they have fled from before conflict has ended? International parties, especially, need to be very aware of the nature of the operations they might be supporting in the months ahead. It has long since been urgent that attention is paid to the plight of IDPs. But it must also be recognised that Myanmar is not a land at peace.

Lahpai Seng Raw is a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Award winner and co-founder of the Metta Development Foundation and Airavati. She is also a delegate at the 21st Century Panglong Conference.


1 The KHCC is an initiative by Kachin humanitarian and religious leaders. The JST comprises Kachin faith-based, community-based and NGO organizations, and has led most humanitarian efforts in Kachin State since the restart of war in June 2011. Members are Bridging Rural Integrated Development and Grassroot Empowerment (BRIDGE), Dai Fin Social Service (Dai Fin), Kachin Baptist Convention Humanitarian and Development Department (KBC), Kachin Relief and Development Committee (KRDC), Kachin Women Association (KWA), Kachin Development Group (KDG), Karuna Mission Social Solidarity (KMSS), Metta Development Foundation (Metta), Nyein (Shalom) Foundation and Wunpawng Ninghtoi (WPN).

2 For analysis of the ceasefire years, see, Mandy Sadan (ed.), War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire 1994–2011 (Nordic Institute for Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 2016).

3 See e.g., “No Camp Closure Without Restitution: A Myanmar Commentary by the Kachin and Northern Shan IDP Land Protection Committee” (Transnational Institute, 11 March 2020):