YANGON – Internally displaced people (IDPs) in Kachin and Shan states in northern Myanmar still do not feel it is safe to return to their homes, and forcing them to do so would be a violation of their rights, women’s rights advocates said.
On June 2, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement announced plans to close IDP camps in Kachin, Shan, Karen and Rakhine states. Armed conflict in Kachin and Shan states in the country’s north, and in Karen State in the southeast, as well as communal conflict in Rakhine State in the west, has forced IDPs to take shelter in more than 100 camps throughout the country.
“We are very concerned about the consequences of the ministry’s announcement, as the IDPs will have to return to their homes, which they do not yet feel are fully safe,” said Lway Poe Ngeal, general secretary of the Women’s League of Burma (WLB). The WLB is an umbrella organization comprising 13 indigenous women’s groups. Among other activities, it gathers information on IDPs and refugees across the ethnic states.
“Only when the fighting has ceased can the villagers return, even though the situation is not completely secure,” she told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
Since fighting resumed between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and government forces (known as the Tatmadaw), in June 2011, more than 130,000 IDPs have taken shelter at temporary camps in both government- and KIA-controlled areas, according to figures from the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO).
According to a statement from the KIO’s News and Information Department released on June 9, 19 civilians have been killed and 47 injured by Tatmadaw shelling and landmines, and 450 villages have been destroyed during the seven years since the resumption of hostilities in Kachin and northern Shan.
The frequency of the clashes has increased in the past year. Between May 2017 and May 2018 alone there were 447 engagements between the KIA and Tatmadaw troops.
In late April, intensified fighting between the Tatmadaw and the KIA in Kachin’s resource-rich Tanai, Hpakant, Injangyang and Mogaung townships displaced 6,041 villagers, who are now taking shelter at Kachin Baptist and Catholic churches, as well as Buddhist monasteries, in Tanai, Myitkyina and Hpakant.
Sr. Naw Tawng, a member of a local IDP relief committee in Tanai, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday that the IDPs there are still dependent on the state government’s assistance, adding that his committee had not heard of any order from the state authorities requiring the refugees/IDPs to return to their homes.
“We were surprised by the Social Welfare Ministry’s plan, as we don’t see any arrangements being made to relocate the existing IDPs to a safer environment. Also, there has been no consultation with the local community on the ground,” said Daw Doi Bu, a Kachin lawyer and outspoken former lawmaker for the Lower House from Injangyang Township, Kachin State.
“Many of the villages were taken over by Tatmadaw troops to house their deployments, and the villagers dare not go back when there are soldiers present,” she told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday.
Besides this, some 60,000 Ta’ang (Palaung) IDPs displaced by fighting between the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army South; and between the TNLA and the Tatmadaw, are still in need of humanitarian assistance.
“I am from northern Shan State and I have seen that those IDPs and refugees [displaced since 2012 by frequent fighting in the region] are not ready to go back to their homes,” Lway Poe Ngeal said.
She added that according to the Ta’ang Women’s Organization, more than 60,000 Ta’ang villagers have been displaced, and many have been forced to go back to their villages knowing there is no guarantee of their personal safety.
Many villagers who have fled the fighting — whether it is for a week, a month or three months — have no jobs or means of support in the camps, she said.
She added that these IDPs have been provided with little to no support, in terms of food or landmine awareness, either by the government or non-governmental organizations, partly due to travel restrictions imposed by the Tatmadaw.