In Person

Karen State Chief Minister: IDP Repatriation Before De-Mining Would be Like ‘Living in a Prison’

By Nyein Nyein 14 March 2017

HPA-AN, Karen State – Since the National League for Democracy (NLD) government took office in March 2016, Karen State has led by a female chief minister, a leader within the NLD since its inception. Nang Khin Htwe Myint recently sat down with Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein to discuss the progress and challenges following the peace process in the state.

In the first part of the interview, the chief minister talks about armed conflict and obstacles to repatriation of internally displaced populations.

Karen State has now started to enjoy greater peace after decades of civil war, but armed conflict continues in places. As the state’s chief minister, are you satisfied with how you’ve been tackling the state’s challenges in this regard?

It is not that I am satisfied, but I can say that we have succeeded to some extent. As our area is at peace, the most immediate challenge is about the land; the non-state armed groups have claimed that certain areas of land are under their control. For instance, the Karen National Union (KNU) created the land plots in accordance with their land policy, in their control areas. We said, they could not manage it like that. As the management of the land is carried out by our government, we must be the one who does this. We explained this to them, as well as to the villagers. We try to convince them that there is only one policy. In our region, peace talks are happening, and we also have gained peace, but we have to follow up on such ‘sequels’ to the peace process.

Refugee repatriation is one of the key issues following the peace process. Firstly, people internally displaced by fighting last September have been unable to return to their homes in Karen State. What is the state government doing to help them?

We have been providing support since the beginning, when there were many civil society donors who came to support them and we only had to worry about their healthcare. Now, we have to support their weekly basic needs. We give them rice, cooking oil, salt, vegetables and medicines, as well as water. We transport these goods to them on time. The Karen State government responds to their needs without delay. We must spend around 10 million kyats every week to support nearly 4,000 people.

What is the state government doing to promote stability in the region, so that the IDPs can return to their homes?

Only their villages are stable, but not the areas beyond their villages, where they work for a living. There are dangers of landmines. We cannot guarantee for their safety if they need to work outside of their village—for example, if they collect bamboo shoots or cut bamboo or to go to rubber plantations, it is risky for them. I really pity them. They have had to stay [in the temporary camp] for a long time and they surely face troubles. Many families have to share the common room and they have no privacy, which further causes social and health-related consequences. I also worry about them because I do not want them to feel lazy because they have no job to do. The children are not able to learn properly. Even if we say we support food and solar energy for electricity for them to return, it would be like they are being put in prison. As we cannot give any guarantees, we now provide care as-is.

What are you doing to de-mine those areas, not only for the IDPs, but also for the safety those refugees who are still on the Thailand-Burma border?

We are collaborating with the UNHCR as they have dispatched the experts. But we are not yet doing de-mining, and have started with awareness raising about mines. They have gone to [Mae Tha Waw] and the surrounding villages twice, I believe. The awareness raising was also done in schools. We told them to start with [Mae Tha Waw] in sweeping mines. The cost is expensive, and we could not provide security for them—we cannot even guarantee our own safety. If the mines were cleared, there would be no problem.