Executive Summary - July to December 2012
Two years ago the changes that have subsequently occurred in Burma/ Myanmar would have scarcely been imaginable. A pariah state for decades, despised and isolated, is now the focus of international attention, the ‘last frontier’ for investors and tourists. Sanctions have been lifted, foreign missions have returned and Rangoon/ Yangon’s roads are clogged with imported new cars replacing post-World War II antiques. Interminable civil war has ceased throughout most of the country, hundreds of political prisoners have been released and the censorship board has been officially dissolved. The reformist Government elected in 2010 is being rewarded by a forgiving international community, waiving debts, promising investment in infrastructure and bolstering aid programmes. The most powerful leaders in the world are visiting the country including Barack Obama, President of the United States, formerly the country’s harshest critic.
It is almost too good to be true and there remains uneasiness, concern that the reforms are not yet irreversible. Whilst applauding the changes taking place, the international community is also expressing deep concern about sectarian violence in Arakan/ Rakhine State and on-going conflict in Kachin State which escalated when the Government’s armed forces began using aircraft and helicopter gunships in December. Human rights abuses continue in former conflict areas and protests have spread throughout the country after the police violently put down peaceful demonstrations by villagers against the proposed expansion of a copper mine in Sagaing Region. The key questions are how much control the Government has over the army, the Tatmadaw, and how much reform is the Tatmadaw willing to accept.
But this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to end conflict, bring about reconciliation and allow Burma/ Myanmar to emerge from isolation. It is important to wholeheartedly support and encourage the change. Failure now would be almost too awful to contemplate, likely resulting in yet more decades of conflict. Hopefully the point of no return will soon be crossed, where antagonists recognise that there is more to be gained by progress than oppression, where everyone can prosper in a modern and progressive State.
This is the heady atmosphere in which The Border Consortium (TBC) continues to support refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) along the Thailand Burma/ Myanmar border. Ceasefires between the Government and ethnic armed groups are largely holding and displacement has abated, although crucial negotiations about the role of the ethnic nationalities in future Burma/ Myanmar politics have yet to begin. TBC, together with other Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is embracing this opportunity to prepare for the time when voluntary return, in safety and dignity at last becomes a reality. TBC has also been supporting peace-building activities, encouraging consultations and exchanges between leaders and communities from both sides of the border, recognising that peace will only be sustainable if all stakeholders are involved in the process.
This report of TBC’s activities during the six months from July to December 2012 describes a period of intense planning, of a reorientation of all its activities and the change of mind-set required after almost 30 years of waiting for change, of ‘care and maintenance’. The challenge now is to embrace change and prepare displaced people for a future back in Burma/ Myanmar where they will have to integrate with local communities. Skills and coping strategies learnt before they return will be crucial to people’s well-being and in ensuring that they are able to play a constructive role in the rebuilding of their communities. The self-management model of assistance used for so many years in the refugee camps provides a crucial starting point.
The thinking process and changes that were already being made to the programme during 2012 are described in detail in Section 3 and the Preparedness Programme for 2013 is set out in a new Section 4. The year 2013 will be an important year for TBC. The pragmatic name change made a few months ago recognises welcome overtures made by the Myanmar Government which will hopefully result in TBC establishing a presence in the South East to support the recovery of conflict-affected communities and help prepare for refugee and IDP return. It will do so under new leadership as Jack Dunford steps down as Executive Director and Sally Thompson takes over. Continuity of purpose and commitment is assured even as new directions are taken.