Thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Shan State have asked the Myanmar government to stop planning investment projects on their land, according to a group statement.
According to a statement issued Wednesday by a group of IDPs, they are worried because they are unable to return home and are concerned that their land will be used for development projects planned by the government. Development projects in the area include mining, agriculture and logging concessions, as well as the China-backed Muse-Mandalay railway project, a part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Because the development projects are planned for areas around the homes of IDPs, they’ve voiced concerns that their land will be taken by the government, leaving them with no place to live when they are eventually able to return home, according to their statement.
As many as 17,000 IDPs have fled their homes in northern Shan State’s Kutkai, Namtu, Mongton, Namkham and Mansi townships since fighting broke out in the area in 2011 between the Myanmar army and ethnic armed groups, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
“Land has many meanings for IDPs, including life, survival, dignity, security, culture, history, heritage for the younger generation and a right to self-determination,” said the statement from the IDPs.
U Naung Latt, a spokesperson for the group of IDPs who issued the statement, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the government plans to build a railway and develop industrial agriculture near his home in Naung Paung, Kutkai Township. He added that many other IDPs come from areas between Muse and Kutkai where the government plans to construct the railway.
He said that investment officials and local authorities have also come to survey the area near his home for a possible hydropower dam but that local people have objected to the project.
“Though we disagree with their project, they will build it if the project is necessary for the Union government,” U Naung Latt said.
The IDPs’ statement also said there are plans for agriculture and mining development in Namtu and Mongton townships.
“We have managed our land using our customary laws for a long time. We rely on our land for our survival. But we have found that there is no law being implemented by the government to protect the land belonging to IDPs. Therefore, we are very worried about our land,” said U Naung Latt.
“We have asked the government to look out for the interests of our land as we are IDPs. We will be very grateful if they can do this,” he added.
Some IDPs also say that some of their land has been slated for a forestation area in Man Wing Gyi area, Mansi Township. They also say that local businessmen and authorities have conspired on illegal logging operations in Man Wing Gyi.
Daw Nang Seng, an IDP in Namtu Township, said that she fled from her village in Mongton Township in 2016 when fighting broke out between the Myanmar military and the TNLA. She has returned to check on her land, but says her ability to look after it depends on the situation in Mongton.
She said that phone towers, mining, logging, and railway development are now all impacting the area around her land.
“We IDPs are worried that our land will disappear one day,” she said.
According to the group’s statement, IDPs in northern Shan State have been unable to return home for a number of reasons. Some come from areas where fighting is ongoing, and armed groups have also restricted where and how IDPs can travel. In some cases, their land is no longer safe because of land mines in the area.
The government has initiated many types of development projects in the region including agriculture projects, dams, mining, and a railway from Ruili, China to Mandalay, which is a part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Those development projects will use land from IDPs who have been displaced. Therefore, IDPs are worried that their land will be taken by the government for local development, leaving them with no place to live when they eventually return home once peace is restored in the region, according to their statement.