Saturday, March 01, 2014

Myanmar: Displaced in Kachin - Few good options

Source: Refugees International 
Displaced in Kachin: Few good options

By Melanie Teff

In a recent meeting with a group of people displaced by the conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin State, I was reminded of the lack of options with which many displaced people can be left. When I asked the group why they were unable to return to their home villages, they laughed and pointed behind my head. I turned around and saw a line of at least 50 military trucks on the road behind us. They told me that they had seen at least 200 military trucks pass by the camp that day.

Like many of the conflicts between the Government of Myanmar and the ethnic minority groups in the country, in Kachin State the Kachin Independence Organisation has been seeking greater autonomy and increased control over local resources for decades. A ceasefire agreement was in place for 17 years, but it was broken by the Government of Myanmar in 2011 when its army attacked Kachin Independence Army (KIA) positions, and since then there has been ongoing fighting. Before arriving in Kachin State last week, I had been told by many diplomats that the conflict there was nearing an end, that it was only a matter of time before it was resolved and those displaced by the conflict could go home. But that was not what I heard when I arrived in Kachin, where most people were despairing about the chances of a peace agreement being reached between the Myanmar government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) any time soon. In fact, what they were seeing was both parties reinforcing their troops.

The people I met had been living in a displacement camp for nearly three years, and they were feeling trapped. They told me that they felt like they could not, “breathe here in the camp.” Their frustration was eloquently summed up by their description of feeling as though they were under house arrest just like the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had been for so many years.

The people I met with had been farmers in their home villages. But they had no access to land in the camp and so they had to rely on food distributions from the UN World Food Program. While they were grateful for the assistance they were receiving, they wanted to be able to work. –However, without land this was not possible for many of them. Some of them occasionally got work as day laborers, but they were paid less than the local population, and did not earn enough to feed their families. And they were acutely aware of the resentment of people living in villages around them who did not receive food assistance, and wanted to move elsewhere because of it. But they had such limited options. They told me that they had given up on waiting for a peace agreement, and that they were now willing to go home even without a peace deal in place if three conditions were met: 1) no active fighting around their villages, 2) no forced recruitment into the army or the KIA, and 3) the removal of landmines from in and around their villages.

Sadly they were aware that even these three basic demands are not able to be met currently, particularly the de-mining of their villages, as there is active conflict between the government and the KIA. Neither party to the conflict is willing to discuss de-mining while they are laying landmines as part of their military strategies. In fact, the Global Landmine Monitor Report showed only 3 places in the world in 2013 where government forces were still laying anti-personnel mines – Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Myanmar.

So when a government official turned up offering “resettlement” to another village some of them jumped at the chance. It was only on reflection that many of the people I talked with regretted their initial decision and wanted to withdraw from the move. The government had stated that if a displaced person moved to the “resettlement” village, they gave up their right to their original land – which was of course a reason that many people did not take this option. And when they went to see the “resettlement” village, they saw that it was very far away, without access to land, and liable to flooding during the rainy season.

The people whom I met told me that they are desperate to move on from their current camp. However, until they are able to return home, they want to find a temporary place to live apart from the equally unsuitable “resettlement” village on offer. But they knew how unlikely this was – that the government would not allow any such arrangement if they did not give up their rights to their original homes. So they would have to remain where they were, feeling trapped in the camp.

As the government of Myanmar considers what to do with the people living in Kachin’s displacement camps, it must remember that those living in such a vulnerable state must not be put under any pressure to relocate elsewhere without being given full information about when, where, and under what conditions any relocation would take place. People who are desperate to get out of a camp may be desperate enough to agree to any change in their situation, only to find that they could be end up in an even worse situation. This cannot be allowed to happen.