Shan refugee advocacy groups have called for the demilitarization of areas near six Shan IDP camps housing more than 6,000 people along the Thailand-Myanmar border, especially in southern Shan State.
The groups, the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan State Refugee Committee (Thai Border), issued the call in a report launched on Thursday. The report highlighted the security threats the refugees face from both the Myanmar military (or Tatmadaw) and the United Wa State Army in areas of Shan State near the Thai border. It said both sides are taking advantage of ceasefires to deploy forces into contested areas near the border, close to Shan armed groups’ territories.
Therefore, it said, displaced people are not yet able to leave the IDP camps and will need food aid until they can make voluntary, safe and dignified returns to their homes.
Displaced ethnic Shan have been taking shelter at Kong Moong Murng, Loi Tai Laeng, Loi Lam, Koung Jor, Loi Sam Sip and Loi Kaw Wan camps along the border. These camps are near areas controlled by the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS).
“The Myanmar government military deploys troops to the areas near the camps, and so does the UWSA [United Wa State Army], thus leaving less space for the refugees to use the lands for agriculture,” said Sai Yord Luin, the spokesman of the Shan Human Rights Foundation.
“Thus the increase in military troops should be stopped,” he said. “Also we would like to urge the international community to consider support for the refugees,” as they have been trapped in the areas for a couple of decades, he added.
According to the report, international donors made the decision to end support for the Shan refugees in October 2017, as ethnic armed groups in the area signed ceasefires. Outlined in these and the ongoing peace process are steps to facilitate refugee repatriation and development, apparently convincing donors their help was no longer needed.
One-and-a-half years later, according to the report, there “has been no change in donor policy towards the southern Shan IDP/refugee camps, despite worsening security conditions.”
It states, “The reality is entirely different. Ceasefires are tenuous, the peace process has stalled, and armed clashes and human rights violations are continuing. Meanwhile, the two main causes of displacement in southern Shan State remain unaddressed: the Burma Army’s massive scorched earth campaign in 1996-1998, which uprooted over 300,000 people; and the forced resettlement by the United Wa State Army of over 126,000 Wa villagers to southern Shan State in 1999-2001, which pushed out thousands of indigenous inhabitants (under the former Burmese military regime’s divide-and-rule strategy).”
U Sai Leng, the spokesman of the Shan State Refugee Committee (Thai Border), said UWSA troops are pressuring displaced people not to work on lands outside their camps, claiming they are under the armed group’s territorial control.
He added that despite the government’s claim that the refugees can return to their homes because the RCSS signed a ceasefire agreement, the conditions for resettlement are not yet right. The failure of a pilot resettlement project in Mong Hta, in southwest Mongton Township, in 2013 has also made displaced people reconsider leaving their camps.
“The procedures for the refugee resettlement program are still vague,” U Sai Leng said, adding that the peace process should be implemented in accordance with the provisions of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA).
Three years since the NCA was signed, a majority of Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon refugees are still stuck in remote IDP and refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, though hundreds of them chose to go back to their villages via the official resettlement program. As of March, some 20,000 had yet to return and lacked official support, according to The Border Consortium (TBC).
“Some of us are from the Mongton Dam project area. People are worried that there will be no opportunities to make a living there and that their villages will be destroyed by the water from the dam,” said U Sai Leng, who is himself an IDP living in a camp.
The report said the UWSA has also been expanding its southern Shan State territories around the IDP camps. The country’s largest ethnic armed group has self-administrative zones in six townships of Shan State.
In February, according to the report, Wa troops seized hills near Loi Kaw Wan IDP camp in Mong Hsat Township, “in contravention of a boundary agreement with the RCSS/SSA [Shan State Army], depriving IDPs of already scarce agricultural land.”
The displaced people are also concerned over the military reinforcements of “positions around five Shan IDPs camps,” despite an existing ceasefire with the RCSS/SSA. Additionally, the building of a new road and the flying of drones over two of the IDP camps in September last year and January this year have frightened some camp residents.
In February, six 120-mm shells fired by the military at two IDP locations terrified the displaced residents, said U Sai Leng. He said that since then they have been preparing bunkers and carrying out evacuation drills in preparation for further attacks.
He added that these locations are not even on the maps of the UN and INGOs as places in need of humanitarian support.
There are some 162,500 internally displaced persons in southeastern Myanmar, including ethnic Shan in Monghsat, Mongton and Mongpan townships, who are facing protracted displacement, according to a Border Consortium report from November 2018.
The government’s refugee resettlement process is now focusing on the refugee camps. The voluntary return of refugees from Thailand-Myanmar border camps is ongoing and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi discussed the matter at a meeting in Naypyitaw on Thursday.
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