Burma: Military offensive displacing thousands of civilians

The worst Burmese military offensive in 10 years has displaced at least 27,000 people in eastern Burma's Karen State since November 2005. The displaced are civilians who have been targeted by the army and are living in exceptionally vulnerable conditions. An estimated three million people have been forced to migrate in Burma as a result of conflict, persecution, human rights abuses, and repressive government measures that prevent people from earning a livelihood. Instead of fulfilling its responsibility to protect its citizens, the Government of Burma, known as the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), is the biggest perpetrator of violations in the country.

Ethnic groups, comprising one-third of Burma's 52 million people, have borne the brunt of the government's repressive policies. The pattern of the Burmese military or the Tatmadaw has been to eliminate all opposition and take full control of ethnic areas. As part of its strategy to curb the support of ethnic insurgent armies, it targets civilians it perceives as backers of the insurgent groups.

In the course of Tatmadaw operations at least 3,000 villages have been destroyed along the eastern Burma border since 1996. Villagers have been forced to flee to hiding sites in jungles, move to government-controlled relocation sites, or travel to relatively more secure ceasefire locations. Today Burma is estimated to have the worst internal displacement crisis in Asia. More than 500,000 civilians are displaced in eastern Burma, with those in hiding being the most vulnerable. People unable to care for themselves and their families have fled to Burma's neighboring countries of Bangladesh, China, India, Malaysia and Thailand in search of asylum. Burma's refugee crisis has a regional impact and the number of refugees from the country is believed to be more than one million.

As the military takes control of new territory in ethnic areas, it initiates development projects and exploits natural resources, which displace more civilians. The forced migration of civilians is ongoing even in ethnic states, such as Mon and Kachin, where political leaders have signed ceasefire agreements with the central authorities. According to a Burmese asylum seeker interviewed by Refugees International in Thailand, "The outside world thinks that just because a ceasefire has been signed between the Mon and the SPDC, it is safe for us to live in Burma. But we continue to face abuses on a daily basis. The military confiscated all my orchards and my family could barely survive. We still tried to stay but had to leave when the military tried to recruit my teenage son."

The Karen National Union, the indigenous political leadership in Karen State, has not entered into a ceasefire agreement with the SPDC and conflict and displacement are not new phenomena there. However, the intensity and spread of the Tatmadaw offensive in recent months are estimated to be the worst in more than a decade. The attack is linked to the military's attempt to consolidate its control over parts of Karen State and the districts of Toungoo, Papun and Nyaunglebin have been particularly hard-hit by the offensive. According to a community-based organization assisting the internally displaced, the recent attacks differ from previous ones in that the military did not withdraw during the 2006 rainy season but continued to attack the same areas repeatedly.

In order to protect themselves, Karen communities have been trying to establish early warning systems. Villagers are constantly on watch to be able to anticipate Tatmadaw attacks and whenever possible, the Karen ethnic army has been warning villagers ahead of an attack so they can go into hiding. At present there remains a lack of an adequate number of communication tools for advance warning.

The military has planted a large number of landmines in and around villages so people are unable to go beyond a certain area, and at the time of harvesting many do not have access to their crops. In some parts of Karen State the army has set rice fields on fire. According to the estimates of a community-based organization assisting the internally displaced, 25,000 people have lost their harvest for the entire year, and in Lerdoh Township alone, 2,800 civilians are believed to have been taken away from their villages and fields by the Tatmadaw to relocation sites where they are being forced to dig trenches and build fencing. Since 2006, the military has also placed a prohibition on trading in some areas of Karen State and prevented villagers from selling or buying certain products around harvest time. After harvest time, villagers are allowed to sell their products, but at half the normal price and only to the military, contributing to food insecurity.

Besides food, the displaced are in urgent need of shelter and medicines. The displaced in Karen State are being assisted largely through cross-border assistance, coming from agencies based in Thailand, and a few community-based organizations inside Burma. This aid is helping people cope with their situation and preventing large numbers from fleeing to Thailand as refugees. Although in recent years donors have allocated more funds for aid to internally displaced people, both for cross-border operations and those inside Burma, the number of vulnerable people has gone up significantly with the latest offensive in Karen State and it is critical that donors respond accordingly.

In terms of medical assistance, Karen internally displaced people are relying largely on traditional curative techniques or on mobile teams, back pack health workers, and Karen medical units who may be able to access them only after navigating their way through heavily militarized territory. Organizations based in Thailand and Burma that are assisting the internally displaced from across the border and inside the country have improved communications in recent months, but there remains a need to strengthen information sharing on the activities being undertaken by both sides.

Many of those displaced in the recent attacks in Karen State who have been able to reach the Thai-Burma border are living in settlements on the Burma side. One of these, the Ei Tu Hta camp, set up in April 2006, is home to 3,000 persons mostly from Toungoo district. Approximately 5,000 recently displaced Karen have also crossed the border into Thailand. Some of them have entered refugee camps, are recognized as asylum seekers, and are awaiting approval from the Provincial Admission Boards, the Thai Government's entities for processing new arrivals. This has largely been the case in Mae Hong Son Province. In Tak Province's Mae La camp, however, none of the new arrivals are recognized and they are living unofficially in the camp.

The Thai Government is concerned that recent efforts to resettle Burmese refugees in third countries is drawing recent arrivals to camps. The Governor of Tak Province has announced that no food or accommodation would be made available to new arrivals in the camps in that province. Further, the Provincial Admission Boards are not fully functional in each of the provinces, and there remains a void for processing new arrivals in certain areas.

The Burmese internal displacement and refugee crises are linked to the regime's policy of targeting civilians. All regional and local initiatives to urge the SPDC to stop attacking civilians and protect its people have failed. The non-binding Security Council resolution introduced by the U.S. in January 2007, which included a call to the SPDC to cease attacks on the country's ethnic minorities, was vetoed by China and Russia. Until such time that all members of the UN Security Council acknowledge that the SPDC must be held accountable, and develop a united approach to address the government's failure to protect its people, the worst internal displacement crisis in Asia will persist.

Refugees International recommends:

- The Burmese military immediately halt all attacks on civilians.

- The UN Security Council members reach consensus on a strategy to pressure the SPDC to stop its abuse of civilians and hold it accountable for its failure to protect Burma's people.

- Donors support initiatives to assist internally displaced people by agencies doing cross-border work and agencies operating inside Burma, with funding directed to the most vulnerable.

- Donors support initiatives to enhance IDP protection through early warning systems.

- Agencies based inside Burma and organizations operating out of Thailand continue to improve coordination and collaboration through regular meetings and information sharing forums.

- The Government of Thailand allow new asylum seekers from Burma official access to all camps and ensure that the Provincial Admission Boards are functioning consistently so the new arrivals can be processed.

Contacts: Kavita Shukla and Camilla Olson, or 202.828.0110