Insecurity, Lack of Trust Keep Myanmar’s Karen Civilians From Returning Home

By Roseanne Gerin
myanmar-karen-refugees-hpa-an-sept16-2016.jpg Civilians who fled from conflict areas in Kayin state arrive at a temporary refugee camp in a monastery in Myaing Gyi Ngu, a village-town in Hlaingbwe township, southeastern Myanmar's Kayin state, Sept. 16, 2016.

Regional insecurity from clashes between the government military and an ethnic armed group in southeastern Myanmar’s Kayin (Karen) state, together with a lack of trust in a current cease-fire agreement, are key barriers preventing the return of civilians driven from their homes by years of conflict, according to a new report on internally displaced persons in the region.

The report, “The Invisible Majority: Before You Were Born, Your Mother Ran” issued by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre in Geneva, Switzerland, examines the drivers of displacement in the state, preconditions for voluntary return, and obstacles and opportunities for sustainable solutions.

“Ongoing insecurity continues to represent a key barrier to return,” the report says.

“Among those who do return, limited trust in the nationwide cease-fire agreement hampers sustainability,” it says.

The report is based on more than 160 interviews conducted in April and May with internally displaced persons (IDPs), and returning refugees from Thailand. A third of those surveyed said they had been displaced by clashes more than five times, and nearly 40 percent said they intended to return to their homes.

About 162,000 predominantly ethnic Karen civilians remain internally displaced in southeastern Myanmar, with some hiding in jungles, resettled into forced relocation sites, and living in displacement camps, though the latter constitute only a small portion, the report says.

“Among research participants, the main causes of displacement were direct attacks against their villages, persecution by the Tatmadaw [Myanmar military], or forced recruitment,” it says.

The IDPs also cited a fear of landmine contamination, lack of housing in destroyed villages, water shortages, a dearth of job opportunities, and fear of providing personal information to the Myanmar government as reasons for not returning to their communities.

Displaced villagers have also been affected by a loss of donor support for food aid provisions and education to keep schools open, the report says.

In addition, about 95,000 displaced Karen civilians currently live in nine refugee camps in Thailand where they are unable to work because the country prohibits employment for refugees and undocumented migrants.

About 19,000 of them have returned from neighboring Thailand through unofficial channels since 2012, when Myanmar began working on brokering cease-fires with the country’s many ethnic armed groups and took positive steps towards democratization, though the international community expected more than 51,000 to return, the report says.

“The overwhelming majority of these returns have been spontaneous,” the report says. “Lack of trust in the current cease-fire agreement makes refugees hesitant to participate in the U.N. refugee agency’s facilitated return process. Spontaneous returnees, however, do not benefit from the same level of support.”

Ethnic Karen refugees walk past shelters inside the Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo.
Ethnic Karen refugees walk past shelters inside the Mae La refugee camp in Mae Sot near the Thai-Myanmar border in a file photo.
Credit: AFP
Decades of conflict

Though the displacement of civilians in Kayin state is one of the world’s most protracted refugee situations, it has received far less international attention than the forced exodus of more than 740,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar’s Rakhine state amid a targeted military-led crackdown in 2017.

In recent years, fighting between Myanmar forces and ethnic armed groups in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan states has also driven tens of thousands of civilians from their homes and into camps or other temporary shelters.

Armed conflict began in Kayin state seven decades ago following Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule when prospects for Karen ethnic autonomy appeared dim.

The Myanmar military’s counterinsurgency operations against the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) included rape, forced labor, slavery, torture, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, the report says.

Although the KNLA’s political wing, the Karen National Union (KNU), signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement (NCA) with the Myanmar government in 2015 and a bilateral truce with the Myanmar Army, clashes have continued to flare, with counterinsurgency operations including direct attacks on civilians, it says.

Hostilities between Myanmar and ethnic Karen forces in 2018 discouraged many potential returnees, according to the report.

In August 2018, Myanmar forces deployed soldiers for road repair work in Hpapun district, sparking armed clashes with the KNLA for what the ethnic army believed was a breach of the NCA, which prohibits army offensives, military infrastructure expansion, and troop reinforcements in cease-fire areas.

“The armed clashes that occurred in 2018 discouraged many potential returnees; the majority of those displaced had only recently returned to rebuild their homes following decades of displacement,” the report says.

The KNU temporarily suspended its participation in Myanmar’s ongoing peace negotiations in October 2018 over dissatisfaction with high-level talks among the government, Myanmar military, and the other ethnic armed organizations that had signed the NCA.

The political wing also broke off its involvement in the peace process over demands that ethnic groups and their armies not secede from a federal union and agree to having one national army in the country.

Then in March of this year, KNU chairman and KNLA commander General Mutu Say Poe resigned from his position as head of the Peace Process Steering Team (PPST), a group of 10 ethnic armed organizations that have signed the government’s NCA.

He had expressed dissatisfaction with the implementation of the peace pact, saying it had deviated from the goal of creating a democratic federal union that includes ethnic equality and rights of autonomy.

KNU members met with Myanmar military officials in the capital Naypyidaw in December in a bid to end armed conflict on the ground, with both sides agreeing to let leaders of their respective armies meet to try to resolve the hostilities, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

“In the meantime, the international community needs to recognize that Karen returns are not taking place at the anticipated rate — and adjust strategic thinking accordingly,” the report concludes.

“Thailand and Myanmar need continued and strengthened support along the entire displacement continuum to avoid potentially premature and unsustainable returns,” it says.


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