Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) at Burma’s borders will not be forced to move home, according to Norway’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Torgeir Larsen.
The Norwegian government has unveiled a pilot scheme for the resettlement of displaced civilians but has faced fierce criticism for cutting cross-border funding and acting too hastily when Burma’s nascent political reforms appear fragile.
But Larsen reassured dozens of representatives from Burmese NGOs who gathered in northern Thailand on Wednesday that the new initiative would only the first step in the reconciliation process and no one would be encourage to move against their will.
“We have just returned from Rangoon this morning where we met with representatives from the KNU [Karen National Union], military, community groups and IDPs,” he told a crowded meeting at Chiang Mai’s Furama Hotel. “We were strong on listening to the IDPs who have spent years moving around.”
“The government and KNU must take the hard decisions and we are working behind them,” he added. “There will be no change to the work happening in the refugee camps.”
The multi-million dollar “Norwegian Peace Support Initiative” aims to rehabilitate regions in eastern Burma that have been subjected to ethnic conflict for decades with the pilot project already underway in northern Karen state.
It is expected to be expanded to other areas where more ceasefires are agreed, especially in light of this month’s peace deal with the Shan State Army, with resettlement to be realized before the coming of the annual June rains.
Larsen explained that IDPs told his delegation that their major worries about moving home included security and land mines. “We have to consider the Kachin conflict also as we cannot have two different processes in the same country,” he added.
Nang Charm Tong, of the Shan Women’s Action Network, asked if it was wise to cut aid to border areas when conflicts were still brewing there.
“Is it not risky to ask the IDPs to return to their villages when there is not sustainable peace?” she asked. “Are you putting the lives of IDPs in danger to encourage them to go back when the political situation is not settled yet?”
Larsen responded that there was a great opportunity in the present climate to work freely in Burma rather than “in the dark” as before.
“In my opinion, the will of the government is real but the ability has to be tested,” he said. “We have to move in with monitors who have trust. We need to set down parameters about what to do and what cannot be done.
“We do not encourage IDPs to move. We are at the first phase of testing this and it would be irresponsible to ask IDPs to move. But we hope that someday we can see this.”
Thaung Htun, the founder of the Thailand-based Institute for Peace and Social Justice in Burma, said it was wise to maintain a creative approach in dealing with the peace process and that Burma could learn from the Indonesian experience.
“When I speak to IDPs about returning home the first thing they want to talk about is security,” he said. “At the same time we need assessment mechanisms to ensure they observe the ceasefire agreements.
“When ceasefires are independent of the political process they collapse as happened in the 1990s. There has been strong will from the government but will alone is not enough. The military are still accused of human rights abuses so there must be creative options.”
Another part of the Norwegian proposals involve liaison offices for ethnic armies, and creating “community development committees” for sustainable development. There are around 140,000 Burmese refugees in nine camps along the frontier.
However, Tin Tin Nyo, general secretary of the Women’s League of Burma, was concerned that not enough community-based organizations had been consulted in the draft proposal.
“There is a lack of consultation of women and not enough reference to women’s problems,” she said. “We wonder that if women are not consulted whether you can really foster peace in our country.”