This year's World Refugee Day – 20 June 2017 - brought into focus the pressing and at times tragic issues facing refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Myanmar. With the peace process faltering and humanitarian support for refugees and IDPs decreasing, fears and anxiety over their future are driving refugees to the most desperate measures. As stated by Karenni, Karen, and Mon community based organizations (CBOs) on World Refugee Day, support must be maintained for the displaced victims of Myanmar's civil war until there is genuine peace.
Around 100,000 refugees live in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border and a further 644,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) reside inside the country. They have fled a decades-long armed conflict between the Myanmar Army and ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) which thus far shows no signs of abating.
Despite such huge numbers of refugees and IDPs in dire need of humanitarian aid, the past few years have seen a reduction in funding to refugee and IDP camps from international donors, resulting in cuts in food rations and essential health and education services. For example, rations at Ei Tu Hta IDP Camp in Karen State will end in September this year. For refugee camps in Thailand, The Karen Refugee Committee, which administers the day-to-day running of the camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, has had to reduced salaries of its staff, including teachers, health workers and security, by 40%. The Human Rights Foundation of Monland explains, "The political and economic changes in Burma/Myanmar [have] led many donors and aid organizations to reprioritize their funding streams away from the border area in the erroneous belief that with the changes taking place, the voluntary and dignified return of refugees and IDPs will shortly follow."
For many living in refugee camps and IDP sites, the reasons why they fled in the first place still exist today. While bilateral ceasefires have been signed between the Myanmar Government and some EAOs since 2012, the presence of landmines, sporadic armed clashes, widespread land grabbing, and increasing militarization by the Myanmar Army in ceasefire areas means return is not a safe, sustainable, nor viable option for refugees and IDPs. Meanwhile, in non-ceasefire areas, ongoing Myanmar Army offensives continue to displace thousands of ethnic Kachin, Shan and Ta'ang and other ethnic minorities from their homes in the north of the country.
World Refugee Day was thus a chance to show how little refugees and IDPs have been able to participate in the ongoing peace talks, as well as the planning and preparations that are being prematurely made for their return. At a press conference in Yangon last week, the largest network of Karen civil society organizations, the Karen Peace Support Network, explained, "It is unfortunate that the voices and concerns of the most vulnerable, refugees and IDPs, are the most neglected during peace process, as there is little avenue for community engagement in the peace process." It is absolutely vital, however, that their voices are central to any decision-making and planning for their future as iterated by the Karen Human Rights Group, "The Myanmar Government, countries of asylum, UNHCR and other humanitarian actors must ensure that IDP and refugee return is genuinely voluntary, without direct or indirect coercion, safe, sustainable, and with full respect for the dignity of the returnees. It should also be a participatory process in which IDPs, refugees and host communities are involved in monitoring the safety and conditions of their potential voluntary return."
As the concerns of refugees are being neglected in the peace process, and international support for them is reduced, many refugees in the camps feel they are being pushed back to Myanmar. These factors, and the anxiety and distress that it causes are manifesting itself in a sharp rise in social problems such as drug abuse, domestic violence and suicide. Areportreleased by the International Office of Migration on 19 June, 2017, highlights the huge increase in suicide rates in the nine camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border between 2014 and 2016. According to the report, 28 people have committed suicide and a further 66 have attempted to do so over the past three years.
The offensives and human rights abuses being committed by the military in northern Myanmar against ethnic Kachin, Shan and Ta'ang civilians are not new, as the 100,000 refugees from eastern Myanmar who have lived along the Thailand-Myanmar border and the 400,000 IDPs residing in sites within southeast Myanmar for decades can testify. As their rations continued to be reduced, there is an acute anxiety within the camps that they will be forced back to face the Myanmar Army. That people would rather take their own lives than return is surely the most indicative sign that refugees and IDPs should not be pushed back. Given the dire situation of those on the ground, the international community must not be swayed by the false allure of the promises of a successful peace process in its current state to abandon the most marginalized and vulnerable communities of Myanmar. As long as the peace process remains fragile, and as long as the Myanmar Army continues to violently persecute the country's ethnic minorities, refugees and IDPs still need unwavering international support.
One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term 'Myanmar' in acknowledgment that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of 'Myanmar' rather than 'Burma' without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, 'Burma' is used.