RANGOON — With nearly 800,000 Burmese nationals internally displaced or seeking refuge outside the country’s borders, the government on Friday emphasized the need to achieve ceasefire agreements nationwide before its people can begin the process of returning home in earnest.
About 350,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 440,000 refugees have been uprooted, according to Aung Min, a President’s Office minister and the chief negotiator in Naypyidaw’s efforts to achieve peace with the nation’s ethnic armed groups. The displaced are victims of communal violence, 2008’s devastating Cyclone Nargis, or the armed conflicts between the Burmese Army and armed ethnic rebels that have raged for decades.
Marking World Refugee Day on Friday—one day after it was officially observed worldwide—Aung Min said resettling Burma’s displaced was critical to its future.
“Our collective vision to build a democratic, open and inclusive society is not complete unless we can guarantee that displaced families can safely return home and will not be separated again by conflict and violence,” he said in prepared remarks to an audience at the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon.
With the installation of a nominally civilian government in 2011, and the political and economic reforms that have followed, talk has turned to the resettlement of IDPs and the repatriation of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese who live in neighboring countries.
Aung Min said there was progress on small-scale repatriation this week in Karenni State, where on Thursday he attended the conclusion of two-day peace talks that saw the signing of an eight-point agreement between the government and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).
Among the accords, the two sides agreed that the town of Shartaw would serve as one of the initial locations for returning IDPs. Any resettlement, however, will be contingent on land mine removal from the area, another point stipulates.
Myat Myat Ohn Khin, Burma’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement, said on Friday that achieving durable ceasefires nationwide was a prerequisite to the mass return of those displaced to their homelands.
“We need to achieve ceasefire agreements with the armed ethnic groups,” she said. “We are still discussing how to repatriate the refugees. We have to create jobs, build houses and provide food to returning refugees.”
Among Burma’s major ethnic armed groups, the reestablishment of a ceasefire accord with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) remains elusive, and occasional clashes between government troops and other rebel forces persist.
Despite the still simmering tensions in some parts of the country, preparations for refugees’ repatriation are ongoing.
Along the border in Thailand, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has begun working with refugees to prepare them for potential repatriation, organizing workshops and training sessions for some of the estimated 140,000 Burmese nationals in Thai refugee camps.
Refugees in Thailand’s Mae La camp were recently given cards asking them to choose one of three options: repatriation, move elsewhere in Thailand or resettle in a third country. A fourth option, to stay put, was nonexistent. Some refugees balked, but the survey’s organizers insisted that participation was voluntary and that the effort was simply to allow better preparation for when, or if, refugees did ultimately decide to return to Burma.
Hans ten Feld, the UNHCR’s representative for Burma, denied that Bangkok was putting any pressure on refugees along the border.
“They [the Thai government] are not in a hurry. They want return to happen when the time is right,” he told The Irrawaddy. “And that for us, and for the government of Thailand also, means that the individual refugee has to decide for himself or for herself that now he or she can go back.
“Reports about pushing or pressure on repatriation are not correct,” he added. “What is happening is that of course there’s more talk about repatriation, there’s preparation for the possibility of repatriation. It’s quite a large group of people there so there are a lot of things that need to be in place. That is what’s happening at the moment, but it’s still up to the individuals to say, ‘Now the time is right.’”
Along Burma’s west coast, more than 140,000 IDPs remain in temporary shelters, many of them displaced for more than a year, after two bouts of communal violence in 2012 between minority Rohingya Muslims and Arakanese Buddhists.
The UNHCR on Wednesday urged Burma’s leaders to act decisively to end discrimination in the state and nationwide.
“The ongoing human rights violations against the Rohingya community in Rakhine [Arakan] State, and the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment across the State and beyond, is threatening the reform process and requires focused attention from the Government,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement.
In northern Kachin State, about 100,000 people have been displaced since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIO broke down two years ago. While humanitarian assistance to IDPs in the state has been received regularly in government-controlled territory, lands held by the KIO have been inaccessible until last week, when an aid convoy reached some 5,000 IDPs for the first time in nearly a year.
The aid delivery came two weeks after the KIO and government negotiators sat down for long-stalled peace talks in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. It was the first time the talks had been held in the country, with two previous rounds hosted by neighboring China.
“We hope that this [the aid deliveries] will now become a normal process but we have to take it step by step and see how it progresses,” Ashok Nigam, the UN’s resident humanitarian coordinator, told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “We certainly expect more, that this will now become normal given the peace talks that have been held recently. This is a point that had been mentioned in that agreement.”
Irrawaddy reporter May Kha contributed reporting.