Guest Column

Myanmar’s Internally Displaced Persons at High Risk Since Coup

By Sheraz Akhtar and Liyun Wendy Choo 27 August 2021

Since the Myanmar military’s February 1 coup, there has been a reduction and suspension of international non-governmental organizations’ (INGO’s) presence in the country, and an intensification of armed conflicts. These developments have exacerbated the humanitarian need in Myanmar amid the COVID-19 pandemic and contributed to a significant increase in internal displacement.

In its Humanitarian Needs Overview, OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, reported 336,000 internally displaced persons (IDP’s) requiring humanitarian assistance in 2021, most of whom are in protracted displacement situations in Rakhine, Kachin, Kayin and Shan states. It also identified protection, water, sanitation, hygiene, food security and the health sectors as having the largest number of people in need. If this data is accurate as of January 2021, the humanitarian situation is likely to have deteriorated since the junta’s coup.

UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, defines IDP’s as “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border”. In contrast to refugees who find safety in another country by crossing an international border, IDP’s are ‘on the run at home’ because they are forced to leave their areas of origin but still remain within the national boundaries of their residence.

Unfortunately, forced migration is not an unknown phenomenon to Myanmar. It is often linked to severe and systematic abuses of fundamental human rights perpetrated by the junta. The Myanmar state has had skirmishes and clashes with a variety of ethnic armed organizations (EAO’s) since its independence, with the guerrilla-style tactics of the EAO’s often provoking retaliatory measures against the civilian population residing in EAO-controlled territories. From the 1960s, the military responded to the protracted ethnic insurgencies with brutal counterinsurgency operations that directly targeted civilians. Known as the ‘four cuts,’ the strategy involved terrorizing local populations with tactics such as sexual violence, torture, looting, forced labor, forced re-location and arbitrary executions to cut insurgents from their bases of support, such as funding, food, intelligence and recruits. Many civilians seek refuge in the jungle or with host communities outside the military’s reach to escape moving to the resettlement sites. Recent media sources suggest that the Myanmar military might have returned to the four cuts strategy to stamp out resistance to its rule.

The military’s ousting of the elected National League for Democracy (NLD) government has also dashed hopes for dialogue around durable solutions to the problem of forced displacement. In 2019, the civilian NLD government launched a National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps, which signaled their interest in working with partners to support the safe and voluntary return and the resettlement of IDP’s in Kachin State. However, this little progress has been totally disrupted by the coup. The fact that any durable solution to the problem of internal displacement requires the support and cooperation of national authorities means that IDP’s and international humanitarian and development actors supporting IDP’s find themselves in a Catch-22 situation, because the very group responsible for the protection of IDP’s is also the perpetrator that has compelled their displacement.

A child at an IDP camp in Kutkai in northern Shan State. /The Irrawaddy

Armed conflicts between the military and EAO’s in Kachin, Kayin, Chin, Shan States and Bago region have intensified since the coup. The clashes have displaced many citizens who oppose military control and have participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Myanmar Peace Monitor reported at least 15 clashes in Sagaing Region, 10 clashes in Chin state and six clashes in Kayah state between the military and People’s Defense Forces as of June 2021. On 23 March, The Irrawaddy reported more than 1,000 people fleeing government housing in Mandalay due to threats of eviction. On 2 April, Myanmar Now reported 10,000 villagers fleeing their homes in Gangaw Township to avoid the military’s crackdown on the CDM. On 8 June, Radio Free Asia reported 10,000 people in Chin State fleeing from escalating clashes between anti-coup militias and security forces. UNHCR’s Myanmar Emergency Update reported that approximately 211,000 people have been internally displaced in Myanmar since the coup.

Many Myanmar IDP’s have escaped to inaccessible areas, such as jungles, to avoid the military. These hidden camps in deep jungles are sometimes the targets of indiscriminate landmines and IDP’s may also get caught in crossfire or find themselves under attack from air and artillery strikes. The IDP’s also lack access to adequate shelter, health facilities and food, as well as facing protection risks, such as gender-based violence, forced recruitment, trafficking and killings. These forested areas are also amongst the most challenging for delivering humanitarian assistance. To make matters worse, many INGO’s have been providing IDP’s with food rations and survival equipment via Thailand but the aid is barely sufficient.

Despite the vulnerability of IDP’s during this period, humanitarian efforts in Myanmar have been limited by heavy monsoon rain, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and travel restrictions. Not only is internal displacement growing, but the escalating political conflict between the military, EAO’s and supporters of the CDM has also lengthened the length of time people are displaced. Many Myanmar IDP’s cannot return to their areas of origin. Those who do try to return sometimes face threats from landmines and unexploded ordnance.

Given that human rights organizations have previously reported the junta’s abuses, such as torture, sexual violence and arbitrary execution, it is highly unlikely that the military council will grant any independent observers access to the IDP camps. This poses a significant challenge to humanitarian advocacy because any atrocities will also be unnoticed by media outlets. At the same time, a visible protective presence, which could constrain the military’s abuses of power, is absent. This lack of protection – especially without international observers – and limited provision makes the IDP’s among the most marginalized groups in Myanmar. Unfortunately, this challenge is happening as COVID-19 cases are surging and the country is struggling with insufficient medical resources, as well as an economy in freefall.

The junta’s coup has left INGO’s undecided about whether to work with the military’s State Administration Council or the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) to support the IDP’s. Although the NUG is formed by formally elected lawmakers and has widespread support amongst Myanmar citizens, it struggles to obtain international recognition. Our sources in various INGO’s claim that geopolitical forces such as China, Thailand and the West have selected their sides. We briefly interviewed a humanitarian aid worker who told us that “CBO’s [Community-Based Organizations] are the backbone of the IDP situation in delivering necessities of life through Thai border regions. However, the Myanmar-Thai militaries, the COVID-19 situation and the monsoon season make it difficult to send resources across the border [especially to Kayah and Kayin states]”.

Given the fact that the already dire conditions for IDP’s are being exacerbated by the pandemic and the military regime, we call upon all overseas Myanmar citizens and members of the international community to  support IDP’s humanitarian needs through the CBO’s and raise IDP’s voices on global platforms.

Dr. Sheraz Akhtar lectures at Indiana Wesleyan University (US) and Chiang Mai University (Thailand). His research focuses on refugee communities’ social, economic, and education development in emerging countries. 

Wendy Choo is a Professional Teaching Fellow at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland. 

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