Local Karen National Union (KNU) leaders have called on Burma Army troops to withdraw in order to ensure a safe return for displaced villagers.
Several hundred internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Pla Kho area and Ei Htu Hta camp in Papun District in northern Karen State recently held a demonstration on the Salween River, calling for the Burma Army to withdraw its units.
The move came as humanitarian support dries up along the Thai-Burma border, pressuring refugees to return to their villages despite the Burma Army presence.
According to a Karen activist group, the number of Burma Army bases in Papun district has increased from 65 to 81 since a ceasefire agreement was reached in 2012, making displaced people feel unsafe amid numerous ongoing allegations of abuse by Burma Army troops.
A statement released by a KNU district committee supported the removal of troops in Papun District so that IDPs could return home without fear.
Papun District, also known as Mutraw District, is the territory of KNU Brigade 5, considered the strongest of the KNU’s seven brigades. KNU Brigade 5 leaders say they are cautious regarding the ceasefire and peace process.
A displaced housewife, Naw Hsa Gay from Ei Htu Hat camp, said she dared not go home while Burma Army troops were still stationed there.
“I fled home because of their abuses and I dare not go back. I want Burma Army troops to move out completely from our areas and burn their bases. Only then, will we dare to return,” she said.
Villager Saw Rer Ker said: “I want all land mines to be cleared and military bases removed from civilian areas so we can go back and stay peacefully. I hope to see Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government bring about this change.”
Villagers also called for an end to human rights abuses, an end to military offensives in ethnic areas, and the removal of landmines from civilian areas. They also pressed for a code of conduct that is properly monitored.
The KNU’s Mutraw District standing committee stated that the Burma Army occupation, expansion, and persecution were the root causes of decades of civilian fear.
“Until, and unless, the government withdraws its troops and army bases, there will be a lack of suitable land to use for livelihood, and no guarantee of a safe return for IDPs,” said the KNU statement.
Some IDPs in Pla Koh area and Ei Htu Hta camp in Papun District have been displaced for more than four decades. Ei Htu Hta hosts about 3,000 displaced people from KNU brigades 2 and 5 who fled military offensives in 2006. These IDPs were told that humanitarian assistance would be cut in September and that they should begin preparations for their return.