“They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again" The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State
While the nonviolent struggle of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi against the Burmese military government’s continuing repression has captured the world’s attention, the profound human rights and humanitarian crisis endured by Burma’s ethnic minority communities has largely been ignored. ¶ Decades of armed conflict have devastated ethnic minority communities, which make up approximately 35 percent of Burma’s population. The Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, has for many years carried out numerous and...[Show more] widespread summary executions, looting, torture, rape and other sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and torture, forced labor, recruitment of child soldiers, and the displacement and demolition of entire villages as part of military operations against ethnic minority armed opposition groups. Civilians bear the brunt of a state of almost perpetual conflict and militarization. ¶ Violations of international human rights and humanitarian law (the laws of war) by the Tatmadaw have been particularly acute in eastern Karen state, which runs along the northwestern border of Thailand. One woman described to Human Rights Watch more than twenty years of Tatmadaw brutality: ... One result of the Tatmadaw’s brutal behavior has been the creation of large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees among Burma’s ethnic minority communities. Conflict and its consequences have been going on for so long that in many ethnic minority-populated areas, continuous forced relocations and displacement–– interspersed with occasional periods of relative stability––have become a fact of life for generations of poor villagers. ¶ The scale of the IDP problem in Burma is daunting. Estimates suggest that, as of late 2004, as many as 650,000 people were internally displaced in eastern Burma alone. According to a recent survey, 157,000 civilians have been displaced in eastern Burma since the end of 2002, and at least 240 villages destroyed, relocated, or abandoned. The majority of displaced people live in areas controlled by the government, now known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), or by various ethnic armed groups that have agreed to ceasefires with the government. But approximately eighty-four thousand displaced people live in zones of ongoing armed conflict, where the worst human rights abuses continue. Many IDPs live in hiding in war zones. Another two million Burmese live in Thailand, including 145,000 refugees living in camps. ¶ Karen State is the location of some of the largest numbers of IDPs in Burma. Since 2002, approximately 100,000 people have been displaced from Karen areas, which include parts of Pegu and Tenasserim Divisions. Though a provisional ceasefire was agreed in December 2003 between the SPDC and the Karen National Union (KNU), sporadic fighting continues. Tatmadaw military operations against the KNU’s army, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), in the first months of 2005 caused numerous deaths and injuries to civilians in poor villages along the Thai border. They also forced many civilians to flee internally or to Thailand. For example, at least 9,000 civilians were displaced in Toungoo District, in the far north of Karen State bordering Karenni State, and in Nyaunglebin District in northwest Karen State, during major Tatmadaw offensives between November 2004 and February 2005. ¶ The majority of Karen IDPs have been forced out of their homes as a direct result of the Tatmadaw’s “Four Cuts” counter-insurgency strategy, in which the Burmese army has attempted to defeat armed ethnic groups by denying them access to food, funds, recruits, and information from other insurgent groups. H.T., a twenty-eight year-old Karen from Dooplaya District, described his experience with the Tatmadaw in January 2005: ... ¶ This report describes the situation in government-controlled areas, including relocation sites, which are generally not accessible from across the Thailand border. The report identifies two main causes of displacement: • Displacement due to armed conflict as a direct result of fighting, or because armed conflict has undermined human and food security and livelihood options; and • Displacement due to human rights violations, particularly land rights caused by Tatmadaw and militia confiscation of land and other violations of land rights, especially in the context of natural resource extraction, such as logging and mining. Other rights violations, such as forced labor, killings, torture, and rape, also cause displacement. ¶ The report describes patterns of abuse and forced relocation over a period of many years. It documents how serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses continue to occur in some parts of Karen State, such as Toungoo and Nyaunglebin Districts, while other areas are relatively quiet. It recommends a need to think of new and more realistic answers to the dilemmas faced by IDPs, many of whom may not be able––or may not want––to go home again. ¶ For this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed community leaders, representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), staff at community-based organizations (CBOs), U.N. officials, and many others. Most important, we interviewed forty-six Karen IDPs living in the Papun hills, in mid-late 2003, and along the Thai border, in early 2005. These forty-six individuals altogether were displaced more than one thousand times. Incredibly, five individuals had been forcibly displaced more than one hundred times. One of these five, an elderly woman, first fled to the jungle during World War II, when Japanese soldiers came to her village. ¶ All the interviewees for this report had been farmers and continue to derive most of their food from working their own or others’ rice fields. These fields remain susceptible to destruction by Tatmadaw patrols. Displacement often means that new land must be cleared for farming, rather than farmers being able to return to former swidden fields in sustainable rotation after fallow swiddens have regained their fertility. Over time, the disruption of traditional agricultural practices has seriously undermined livelihoods and caused encroachment by swidden farmers into primary forest, rather than rotating their plots in secondary forest customarily used for swidden agriculture. ¶ Many IDPs have been displaced for some time, and live alongside others who are not–– or have not recently been––displaced. Their needs may therefore be similar to those of other vulnerable populations in peri-urban and rural Burma. ¶ The main problems identified by interviewees were lack of consistent access to food; insufficient income and livelihood problems; human rights abuses and poor physical security related to displacement and fighting; lack of access to education and health services; and, finally, the problem of landmines, which destroy both land and their victims’ lives. Their primary need is to be able to farm properly, without disturbance, and thus improve income and food security, as well as better access to education and health services. All wanted to, as one interviewee put it, “live in peace and with justice.” Most of these problems are linked to longer-term structural problems, and can only be addressed in the context of socio-economic––and above all political––solutions to Burma’s protracted ethnic conflicts. ¶ The findings of this report caution against assuming that all IDPs necessarily want to return “home.” Returning home can be a problematic concept for people who have been on the move for long periods of time. Many IDPs may wish to return home, if it still exists, but others may want to stay put or resettle elsewhere. Some who have returned home or have otherwise resettled still face major problems, while others have not. Some have not moved and built new lives in the place to which they were displaced, often in the jungle hills or in a relocation site. ¶ Thus, those providing assistance should avoid taking a one-size-fits all approach to meeting the needs of IDPs. Instead, the focus should be on individual choice and the needs of specific communities. Indeed, the U.N. Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, which summarize existing international law as it applies to IDPs, make choice the touchstone. Competent authorities have a duty to “establish conditions, as well as provide the means” to allow voluntary resettlement and integration in the place to which people are displaced, if that is their choice. ¶ An understanding of long-term patterns of forced displacement should inform the design of humanitarian, development, and socio-political interventions on behalf of the displaced. One aspect that deserves careful consideration is the effect of ceasefires on the human rights situation and on displacement. Over the past decade many armed ethnic groups have entered into ceasefires with the military government in Rangoon. In some parts of the country, ceasefires have meant a reduction in the most severe forms of human rights abuses, though this has not usually led to greater respect for other basic rights, such as freedom of expression or the right to due process of law. But in many cases, ceasefires have been quietly accompanied by the reemergence of local civil society actors. This has been one of the most important, yet under-studied, aspects of the ceasefires in Burma. ¶ The SPDC and KNU agreed to an informal ceasefire in December 2003. In some parts of Karen State, the situation began to stabilize. Across the whole of Tenasserim Division, and much of lower and western Karen State, there has been less fighting and fewer of the most severe type of human rights violations, such as extrajudicial executions and torture, than before. Some IDPs are beginning to return from hiding places in the jungle and from relocation sites to build more permanent houses and grow crops other than swidden rice. However, the Tatmadaw continues its aggressive use of forced labor, especially on road-building projects, land confiscation, and arbitrary taxation in many areas. It has recently stepped up attacks on a variety of armed ethnic groups. Under the right conditions, a ceasefire between the SPDC and the KNU could deliver a substantial improvement in the human rights situation, creating the space in which local and international organizations can begin to address the urgent needs of Karen IDPs. But the situation may yet return to guerilla warfare and full-scale counterinsurgency. ¶ Many of the ceasefires are now under threat. Since the purging of General Khin Nyunt last October, hard-liners in the SPDC have attempted to undermine ceasefires agreed between Rangoon and several armed ethnic groups since 1989. In mid-2005, the future of these ceasefires looks more and more uncertain. ...
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