Written by Kirsten McConnachie.

The actions of the Myanmar army in Rakhine State over the past weeks have shocked the world and once again revealed the intolerable conditions faced by Rohingya. They have also challenged the narrative of transition and transformation that has prevailed in relation to Myanmar, particularly since the election of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government in 2015.  A central plank of this narrative has been the quest for peace between the Government and various ethnic armed organisations.

There are currently more than 1.5 million refugees and IDPs from Myanmar, a figure that includes 400,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in September 2017; a further 300,000 Rohingya who were already in Bangladesh prior to the recent military offensive; 120,000 internally displaced in Kachin and northern Shan States; around 400,000 internally displaced in southeast Myanmar

A great deal is at stake in this process, which has been arguably the only opportunity in a generation for ethnic armed organisations to engage in genuine political dialogue with the Government of Myanmar and negotiate their demands for political self-determination. However, the scale of the challenge is vast. One problem is the complexity of political conflict in Myanmar, where dozens of ethnic armed organisations are operating. (It should be noted that the Rohingya are not part of the peace process, nor are they likely to be: their position in Myanmar is unique and uniquely challenging). This plurality of conflicts is reflected in the limited reach of the peace process. Signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement constitute only around 20 percent of the total ethnic armed forces operating in the country and do not include some of the largest and most well-funded groups such as the Kachin Independence Army and the United Wa State Army. The slow pace of the peace process is also concerning, with few concrete outcomes achieved after more than five years of political negotiations.

A further difficulty for the peace process has been the need to build trust in Myanmar’s government and military. After decades of discrimination and systemic human rights violations, Myanmar’s rulers – even an NLD-led government – must prove a commitment to peace. Instead, military offensives in Rakhine State, Kachin State and Shan State have shown continued disregard for civilian lives, total military impunity, and a lack of will (or indeed political authority) on the part of the Myanmar Government to control its army.

The result is a contradictory set of narratives: a continuing peace process yet an apparently deteriorating political environment. One group of people who have been badly affected by this contradiction are refugees and internally displaced people, who are unable to return to Myanmar and have been largely overlooked in the peace process to date, yet have lost international funding and support.

Displacement and the peace process

There are currently more than 1.5 million refugees and IDPs from Myanmar, a figure that includes 400,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in September 2017; a further 300,000 Rohingya who were already in Bangladesh prior to the recent military offensive; 120,000 internally displaced in Kachin and northern Shan States; around 400,000 internally displaced in southeast Myanmar; more than 100,000 refugees living in camps in Thailand (many of whom have been displaced for decades), and further substantial populations of refugees in Malaysia and India.

Displacement on this scale is symptomatic of deep-seated governance failures in Myanmar, many of which are closely related to the core topics of the peace process, including ethnic and religious discrimination, militarisation of ethnic territories and sustained state violence. To a large degree, therefore, the needs of refugees and IDPs are similar to those of other citizens: equality, political recognition, non-discrimination, protection of human rights, access to education and healthcare.

However, refugees and internally displaced persons also have unique needs – most obviously, the need to be able to return home, when they choose to do so and when it is safe for them to do so.  For this to happen, a range of measures need to be in place.  First, returns must be wholly voluntary, and so can only take place when refugees and IDPs are confident that there is a lasting peace and the potential to build a sustainable future in Myanmar.  Returnees will need support to facilitate reintegration, potentially including assistance for travel; provision for housing; opportunities for employment; restoration of citizenship documentation; and support for education for returning children. In international law, displaced people are also entitled to restitution of their housing, land and property, and delivering this should be part of a wider package of legal and political reforms to address the causes of displacement and injustices resulting from it.

In Myanmar’s current climate, even listing these provisions seems wildly optimistic and foolishly naïve. Not only have these issues not been addressed within the peace talks, but conditions for refugees and IDPs have actually worsened in several respects since the peace process began. Donors have reduced funding to refugees and IDPs while expanding new programmes inside Myanmar. In September 2017, the primary organisation that has been providing food and shelter to refugee and IDP camps in the Thai-Burma border area, The Border Consortium, wholly ceased support to IDP camps. In Malaysia and India, people from ethnic territories which are under ceasefire agreements (including Karen, Karenni, Mon and Chin) are now much less likely to be recognised as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and their prospects for international resettlement have dwindled.

The result for many refugees and IDPs is that though their needs have not changed, the levels of protection available have drastically reduced.  Conditions in Myanmar are not yet suitable for them to return home, and conditions in countries of exile are becoming much more difficult. Their needs are largely being ignored in the peace process, their voices are rarely heard in policy discussions, and the levels of donor support available are insufficient.  Even in the best-case scenario, building peace in Myanmar will be a long process.  In the meantime, refugees and IDPs must face more difficult years ahead.

Kirsten McConnachie (@kirstenmcconnac) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Warwick, School of Law.  Her work focuses on governance and justice in refugee situations. She has a particular regional interest in southeast Asia and with refugees from Burma/Myanmar, having worked first with Karen refugees living in camps in Thailand and more recently with ethnic Chin refugees in Malaysia and India. She has conducted extensive field research in each of these countries. Her first book, ‘Governing Refugees’ (Routledge 2014), analysed governance and justice among Karen refugees in camps in Thailand and was awarded the Socio-Legal Studies Association early career book prize for 2015. Image credit: CC by Mikhail Esteves/Wikimedia Commons.

Author’s Note: For a detailed analysis of these issues see Kirsten McConnachie (2017), ‘Dealing with Displacement in Myanmar’s Peace Process’ with the Political Settlements Project (www.politicalsettlements.org).

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