History & Current Events
Refugees, IDPs & Ongoing Armed Conflict in Burma
Ongoing Armed Conflict
__ Since Burma gained independence from colonial rule in 1948, successive central governments have fought against a number of ethnic insurgencies within the country. Ethnic groups involved include the Karen, Karenni, Shan, Mon and Kachin, among others. Over the past 63 years the protracted conflicts, accompanied by serious human rights abuses, have displaced millions of people from ethnic areas, many of whom have fled to neighbouring countries. The military has been attempting to unify the country under a single territorial sovereignty and a brutal central government, whilst minority groups are fighting for political autonomy in previously semi-autonomous border regions. The military strategy employed in the border areas seeks to undermine ethnic minority political and military organisations by targeting their civilian support base, thus continuous armed conflict has directly undermined human and food security throughout Burma and has impoverished large parts of the civilian population.
Click here to read a very good, brief overview of the sources of the various ethnic conflicts in Burma, the current situation, and the prospects for moving forward (by Bertil Litner, Asia Times Online).
Since 1989 the government has negotiated ceasefires with 17 insurgent groups, and more recently, in December 2011, a deal for a ceasefire was reached between the local government and another major ethnic insurgent group, the Shan State Army-South. However, in many of these cases the ceasefire agreements have been uneasy: the Burma Army continues to conduct human rights abuses, has failed to gain the trust of the local population and continues to be viewed as an occupying force. In January 2012, the Karen National Union, representing the largest ethnic group in Burma, signed its first written ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government, following 63 years of fighting, instability and suffering. However, with talks due to reconvene for more substantial discussion, it remains to be seen whether the ceasefire agreement will translate into a genuine end to the conflict within Karen state. The outcome of this agreement is of additional interest to the international community as a peace agreement between the KNU and the Burmese government is one of the primary demands made by Western countries before economic sanctions imposed on Burma can be lifted.
However, there is one ethnic group with which no ceasefire currently exists and conflict continues, which raises serious questions about the limits of the ‘reform’ agenda of the current civilian government. A 17-year ceasefire ended in Kachin State in June 2011, and there continue to be reports of ongoing fighting, displacement and severe human rights abuses committed by the Burma Army. Moreover, aid to those displaced by the fighting has been blocked, and the 75,000 refugees displaced along the Burma-China border continues to increase.
Refugees & Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)
Civilians living in ethnic areas are the worst affected by the country’s ongoing civil wars. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar says that between 1996 and 2006 the conflict generated an estimated 1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), many of whom belong to minority ethnic nationalities. Civilians are also forcibly relocated to state-run and heavily militarised villages where their human rights are severely violated by Burmese Army soldiers. Such abuses include extra-judicial and summary executions, human minesweeping, torture, extortion and confiscation of minority lands. There have also been increasing reports about civilians being forcibly relocated by the government so that it can access resource-rich land for development projects. The government compensates villagers with land unsuitable for farming, and they are left with no means of making a livelihood.
_It is very difficult to find data relating to displaced people, predominantly because they fall into so many different categories - recognised refugees, internally displaced people, 'economic' migrants, etc. While much of the available information focuses only on recognised refugees, this is not really a fair analysis as it is easier for people in some parts of Burma to get refugee status than it is for people in other areas, depending on which country they flee to. Therefore, we think it is important to look both at refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPs)
Whilst there is some data for IDPs in eastern Burma, there is less for those in western Burma. Nevertheless, we have collated some numbers and references below. It is important to remember that these numbers are just rough estimates, as they are very difficult to verify and fluctuate widely.
Shan State: 145,600 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Karenni State: 35,100 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Pegu Region: 44,900 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Karen State: 106,800 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Mon State: 40,000 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Tanintharyi Region: 77,600 IDPs (TBBC, 2011)
Kachin State: 55,000 IDPs (UN-OCHA, 2012)
Chin State: 65,000 (Physicians for Human Rights, 2011)
Rakhine (Arakan) State: 80,000 IDPs (Narinjara News, 2002 - nothing more recent available.)
Estimated total: 650,000 IDPs in Burma
There is little information available on internal displacement in western Burma. Limited access to affected areas and lack of independent monitoring make it virtually impossible to verify their reports of the numbers and situations of internally displaced people. Furthermore, in Western Burma the situation is far less well-reported and levels of aid and advocacy are lower compared to Thailand border areas. Overall estimates of the total number of IDPs, including many long-term IDPs, goes up to several million.
Like IDPs, statistics for refugees are hard to verify. The numbers below are estimates of refugees from Burma, both registered and unregistered, living in Burma's neighbouring countries.
Thailand: 146,000 refugees
Burmese refugees in Thailand mainly come from the states along the Thai-Burma border, especially Shan State, Karen State and Karenni State. Most are ethnic minorities fleeing conflict and human rights abuses, but there are also many political refugees of Burman ethnicity and migrant workers (see below).
China: 10,000-40,000 refugees
Since June 2011, at least 60,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Kachin State in northern Burma - many of whom have fled across the border to China - to escape renewed fighting after the Burmese Army broke a 17-year-old ceasefire.
Most Burmese refugees in India are Chin, with smaller Kachin, Arakan, and Burman populations as well. Most are trying to escape famine, restrictions on basic freedoms, poverty and persistent human rights abuses committed by the Burmese Army.
(Refugees International, 2009; Chin Human Rights Organization, 2009)
Bangladesh: 229,000-250,000 refugees
Burmese refugees in Bangladesh are largely Rohingya, coming from Rakhine State in southwestern Burma. They flee to Bangladesh to escape atrocious violations of their human rights, including systematic discrimination, arbitrary taxation, forced labor, or confiscation of their land. The Rohingya are not considered citizens and are unable to move, marry, or find jobs without obtaining permits or paying bribes.
(UNHCR, 2012; Open Society Institute, 2011)
While Burma’s closest neighbours play host to large numbers of refugees, millions more people from Burma exist within these countries as migrant workers. There are currently significant numbers of Burmese migrants in Thailand, China, India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia to name but a few; there is even a growing Burmese migrant population in Saudi Arabia! In Thailand alone there are an estimated 2 to 6 million, but for all countries accurate figures are difficult to obtain because much of the movement is irregular and/or illegal.
Research with Burmese migrants has helped to illustrate the complicated mix of reasons why people chose to leave their homes and country. Some migrate because they were living in areas of internal armed conflict where ethnic minority-based armed opposition groups have been fighting against the central Burmese government, sometimes for decades. Migrants from these regions have often been victims of, or witnesses to, the Burma Army’s counter-insurgency activities, including forced labour and forced relocation. Others from conflict-free areas in Burma have left their homes because there are no jobs or other economic opportunities. Others come in order to send money home to their families. Whilst some migrants are able to cross the border on their own, many others voluntarily pay large sums to ‘agents’ who smuggle them through checkpoints, often by bribing immigration officials. Additionally, thousands of Burmese nationals have been trafficked into other countries to work in brothels, private homes or sweat shops.
Migrant workers from Burma are employed in various sectors of industry including fisheries, manufacturing, domestic and construction work, hotels and restaurants and agriculture. Many countries use migrants as cheap labour to benefit their economies and migrants end up in jobs that no one else will do and that are dangerous, dirty or demeaning. In almost all cases migrant works are extremely vulnerable, especially those who are undocumented or unregistered with the country in which they are living, and therefore illegal. They are vulnerable to arrest, detention and deportation, extortion by the police and lack of basic labour rights, e.g. mandatory long working hours without overtime payment, being paid less than the minimum wage, lack of safe working and living conditions, and inability to collectively organise themselves. Migrants also encounter fear of discrimination and may lack access to healthcare and education.
Further reading: Thailand: The Plight of Burmese Migrant Workers, Amnesty International (2005).