A sustainable peace must be restored in Shan State before war refugees can return, said representatives of a Shan civic group in northern Thailand on Tuesday.
The umbrella group of 16 ethnic Shan NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs) also called for the suspension of all oil and gas pipelines, large hydropower dams, and mining and logging ventures in the region until a genuine political settlement to the conflict can be achieved.
Speaking at a press conference in Chiang Mai, the Shan groups’ statement comes in the wake of a Norwegian government initiative to cut funding for Thailand-based groups, and to introduce a pilot project of model villages in eastern Burma to accommodate returning refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
“It seems as if development is being placed ahead of a political settlement,” said spokesperson Charm Tong from the Shan Women’s Action Network. “The Norwegian government has accepted [Burmese government negotiator] Aung Min’s presentation without consulting the ethnic groups or civil society.
“There should be further consultations,” she said. “And above all, there must be no war if IDPs are to return. People must be able to live without fear and without this fighting.”
Sai Khur Hseng of the Shan Sapawa Environmental Organization explained that Norway has cut cross-border humanitarian aid to IDPs in Karen State as the first of its pilot projects to encourage displaced persons to move to “model villages” which are being set up across the state.
“These pilot projects will be expanded to Chin, Mon and southern Shan State,” he said.
But several observers have voiced concerns that the IDPs are being used as “guinea pigs” in a naïve plan to consolidate peace in the region during this window of opportunity—the fragile ceasefire—that currently exists.
“How can cutting food aid bring peace?” questioned Charm Tong.
The Shan CBOs emphasized that the Burmese army maintains more than 180 battalions in Shan State—a quarter of its total troop strength, which is generally estimated at some 400,000 men. “Despite recent ceasefire agreements, armed clashes continue, and the Burma army continues to target civilians for abuse with impunity.
“Burmese troops have not withdrawn since the ceasefire,” the group said. “In fact, 17 clashes have been reported between the Burma army and the Shan State Army-South by June 2, while 15 clashes with the Shan State Army-North have been reported.”
The Shan CBO representatives said that they call on the Burmese army to reduce its number of troops on the ground in Shan State, and to withdraw from conflict areas. “This will allow civil society to take a leading role in the peace process,” they said. “And to ensure a sustainable peace in our land.”