The Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF) and Shan State Refugee Committee-Thai Border (SSRC-TB) published a new report “Shrinking refuge: new threats to refugee security on the Shan-Thai border”on May 23, emphasizing the plight of more than 6000 affected displaced Shan villagers along the southern Shan State-Thai border, whose food support was cut by international donors over a year ago.
According to the report, “The official Burmese government narrative is that southern Shan State is now peaceful: ethnic armed groups have signed ceasefires and joined the peace process, so refugees can return and development can proceed. This is the narrative underpinning the decision by international donors to cut support for displaced Shan on the Thai-Burma border in October 2017.”
However, it emphasized that the reality is entirely different. “Ceasefires are tenuous, the peace process has stalled, and armed clashes and human rights violations are continuing. Meanwhile, the two main causes of displacement in southern Shan State remain unaddressed: the Burma Army’s massive scorched earth campaign in 1996-1998, which uprooted over 300,000 people; and the forced resettlement by the United Wa State Army of over 126,000 Wa villagers to southern Shan State in 1999-2001, which pushed out thousands of indigenous inhabitants (under the former Burmese military regime’s divide-and-rule strategy),” wrote the report.
The report highlighted the plight of the displaced Shan villagers due to the following points. They are: “ Widespread military build-up along the southern Shan State border; New infrastructure closes in; Recent signs of Burma Army aggression; The UWSA digs in along the southern Shan State-Thai border; and Concerns with mapping by international agencies.”
Despite an existing ceasefire with the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA), the Burma Army has been reinforcing positions around the five Shan internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, building new roads, sending out drones, and on February 2019 fired six 120 mm shells at two IDP locations. Terrified IDPs have been preparing bunkers and carrying out evacuation drills in preparation for further attack.
The UWSA has also been expanding its southern Shan State territories around the IDP camps. In February 2019 Wa troops seized hill fields near Loi Kaw Wan IDP camp in Mong Hsat township, in contravention of a boundary agreement with RCSS/SSA, depriving IDPs of already scarce agricultural land. The extent of the growing militarization in southern Shan State is highlighted in new SHRF maps, showing hundreds of Burma Army and UWSA outposts thickly dotted around the Shan IDP camps.
Maps also show the extent to which the UWSA has solidified control over its southern territories, to which it forcibly resettled over 120,000 Wa villagers from the north twenty years ago, pushing out indigenous Shan, Akha and Lahu inhabitants – under a divide-and-rule strategy by the former Burmese military regime. Rural subsistence farming communities have been replaced by a sprawl of military garrisons overseeing large mono-crop plantations, mainly producing rubber for export to China.
While all eyes were on the UWSA’s 30-year ceasefire celebration on the China border last month, a similar large parade of thousands of troops at their southern headquarters in Huay Aw, Mong Ton – only 15 miles from the Thai border – was a stark reminder of the need to resolve territorial issues in southern Shan State before refugees can return home.
During the past year, new roads have been built in southern Larng Khur, opposite the northern Mae Hong Son border, facilitating supply of frontline Burma Army outposts around Kong Moong Merng IDP camp. These roads will also facilitate quick deployment of troops and supplies during any offensives.
Last year, Chinese engineers from the Three Gorges Corporation carried out surveys at the Mong Ton dam site carrying out tests under tight security. This giant dam, slated to produce 7000 megawatts of electricity, 90% for export to Thailand and China, will flood vast tracts of land in southern and central Shan State which were depopulated by a massive Burma Army scorched earth campaign in 1996-1998. If the dam is built, tens of thousands of displaced villagers will never be able to return home.
Three months after international donors cut food aid to the refugee/IDP camps on the Shan-Thai border, the camps were removed from the monthly maps of The Border Consortium (TBC) showing refugee and IDP camp populations along the Thai-Burma border. The Shan IDP camps along the Thai border also do not appear on UNOCHA maps of IDP camps in Shan State. For example, their most recent map “Myanmar: IDP sites in Shan State (as of 28 February 2019)” shows only IDP camps in northern Shan State. This is a source of serious concern, as it presents an inaccurate picture of displacement in Shan State. Simply because donors have decided not to support displaced populations in southern Shan State, should not mean that their existence is denied.
The report concluded by calling foreign donor government to pressure the Burma Army to stop militarization and attacks in all ethnic areas of Burma, so that a new inclusive peace process can begin; and to urgently resume food aid to IDPs and refugees in camps along the Shan-Thai border until they can return voluntarily, in safety and dignity to their homes in Shan State.
Given such conditions of military build-up occupation and expansion of the Burma Army and the UWSA and further encroachment on IDP land, it is hard to imagine that the refugees and IDPs in camps along the border will be able to return home anytime soon.
The best solution to some 162,500 IDPs of southeastern Myanmar, including ethnic Shan in Monghsat, Mongton and Mongpan townships, according to Border Consortium report from November 2018, which the 6000 Shan villagers along the Thai border are also a part, it is obvious that the continued militarization and the divide-and-rule of the Burma Army policies are not the solution.
And as the report rightly pointed out, the Burma Army shouldn’t be pushing ahead with the failed Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) process, which is further fueling divisions among the ethnic groups, but instead should implement a genuine nationwide ceasefire, and allow inclusive political dialogue to start addressing the root causes of conflict.