Issue 41 - Article 10

Protracted crisis in eastern Burma

December 23, 2008
Thailand Burma Border Consortium

Twenty years after the Burmese junta suppressed pro-democracy protesters, violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma are more widespread and systematic than ever. Ten years after the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were submitted, the international response in eastern Burma remains largely ineffective in dealing with a predatory governing regime.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) has been collaborating with ethnic community-based organisations to document the characteristics of internal displacement in eastern Burma since 2002. During this period there has been increasing debate about whether violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma constitute an international crime. So, aside from updating information about the scale and distribution of internal displacement, the most recent survey compiles abuses reported during 2008 in relation to the legal framework for crimes against humanity (TBBC, Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma, 2008).

The scale and characteristics of displacement

Conflict-induced displacement remains most concentrated in the northern Karen areas, where armed skirmishes between the Burmese army and the Karen National Union (KNU) continued in the first six months of 2008. While the wet season was previously a time of respite from Burmese army patrols, intensified troop deployments during the past couple of years mean that the occupation is now sustained all year. This has led to the displacement of 27,000 villagers in the four affected townships during the past year. The prevalence of attacks targeting civilians has slightly decreased since the junta’s offensive in 2006. However, the harassment of villagers perceived as sympathetic to the armed opposition has continued.

The four townships surrounding Laikha in southern Shan State are of particular concern. Armed skirmishes and Burmese army deployments have escalated in this area since a former battalion commander with the Shan State Army – South surrendered in 2006. The Burmese army is attempting to assert its supremacy in the area by breaking communication links between the armed opposition to the south and ceasefire groups to the north. Over 13,000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced from their homes in this area during the past 12 months.

TBBC has previously reported that more than 3,200 settlements were destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in eastern Burma between 1996 and 2007. Such field reports have been corroborated by high-resolution commercial satellite imagery of villages before and after the displacement occurred. During the past year, community organisations have documented the forced displacement of a further 142 villages and hiding sites.

However, displacement is more commonly caused by coercive factors at the household level. The imposition of forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, agricultural production quotas and restrictions on access to fields and markets has a devastating effect on household incomes and a destabilising impact on populations. During the past year, this has been exacerbated by hydro-electric projects in Shan and Karen states, mining projects in Shan and Karenni states and Pegu Division, a gas pipeline in Mon State and commercial agriculture and road construction in general.

While the total number of internally displaced persons in eastern Burma is likely to be well over half a million, at least 451,000 people are estimated to be displaced in rural areas alone. The population includes approximately 224,000 people currently in the temporary settlements of ceasefire areas administered by ethnic nationalities. However, the most vulnerable group is an estimated 101,000 civilians who are hiding in areas most affected by military skirmishes, followed by approximately 126,000 villagers who have been forcibly evicted by the Burmese army into designated relocation sites. An estimated 66,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a result of, or in order to avoid, the effects of armed conflict and human rights abuses during the past year alone.

Vulnerability assessment

Household surveys conducted since 2005 indicate that threats to personal safety and security have increased. This is particularly significant in regards to the incidence of arbitrary arrest or detention and forced conscription to porter military supplies, reflecting increased troop deployments to outposts along the border. When disaggregated by surroundings, the dangers of military patrols, landmines and artillery attack are especially acute for households hiding in the most contested areas. Villagers in government-controlled relocation sites are at greater risk of arbitrary arrest or detention, torture or beatings and forced conscription as porters and landmine sweepers. These findings support the assessments of human rights groups that government troops and administrative authorities are the primary perpetrators of violence and abuse against civilians.

Despite the severity of threats to personal safety and security, the prevalence of threats to livelihoods is more significant. Restrictions on civilian movement to fields and markets have increased markedly during the past two years. The survey findings indicate that this is now the most pervasive human rights abuse, followed by forced labour and extortion or arbitrary taxation. The proportion of households affected by these patterns of abuse was highest in mixed administration areas and relocation sites, which is indicative of the oppressive conditions associated with living in close proximity to the Burmese army. Conversely, the destruction or confiscation of food supplies and the destruction of, or forced eviction from, housing primarily targeted villagers hiding in the most contested areas. This reflects the government’s counter-insurgency strategy, which deliberately targets civilians through impoverishment and deprivation.

Assessments of malnutrition have been utilised to quantify the extent of vulnerability. In 2007, acute malnutrition was detected amongst 9.5% of internally displaced children, which borders on a serious public health problem according to World Health Organisation standards. This compares poorly to the latest national baseline figures, which indicate that 7.4% of children are acutely malnourished. Given that a third of children are chronically malnourished nationwide, it can be speculated that close to half the children in internally displaced communities suffer from stunting.

In terms of coping strategies, the significance of traders and other civilians as a source of early warning about approaching troop movements appears to have decreased during the past few years. Civilians have become more dependent on their own village security guards as a result of increased restrictions on movement weakening broader economic and social networks. However, accessing loans and aid from neighbours remain key mechanisms for coping with shocks to livelihoods. This highlights the continued importance of social capital within and between local communities for the development of a protective environment.

Humanitarian action and the Responsibility to Protect

Despite concessions made in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis, the junta’s restrictions on humanitarian access continue to obstruct aid workers elsewhere in Burma, particularly in conflict-affected areas. Indeed, the junta categorically ‘rejects the assertion of the presence of a large number of internally displaced persons’ in eastern Burma (U Nyunt Maung Shein, Myanmar Permanent Representative to Geneva, UN Human Rights Council, 27 September 2007). The large scale of displacement and the obstruction of relief efforts are indicative of ongoing violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma.

Agencies based inside the country can reach more stable areas, including some internally displaced communities in government-controlled relocation sites and ethnic ceasefire zones, but the scale of this assistance remains limited. Cross-border aid is vital in order to access and assist the most vulnerable communities. In 2007, approximately $7 million was channelled into cross-border initiatives supporting livelihoods, health care, education, human rights, environmental protection, independent media and community rehabilitation.

The evidence cited in TBBC’s latest report appears to strengthen Amnesty International’s assessment that the violations in eastern Burma meet the legal threshold to constitute crimes against humanity (Amnesty International, Crimes Against Humanity in Eastern Burma, ASA 16/011/2008, 5 June 2008). International law recognises crimes against humanity as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population. Attacks on civilians refer not only to military assaults but also to the multiple commission of acts such as murder, enslavement, forcible transfer of population, torture and rape when related to a state policy. This definition reflects customary international law binding on all states, including Burma.

Sceptics argue that raising allegations about crimes against humanity will merely frustrate the promotion of political dialogue. However, just as the provision of humanitarian assistance should not be dependent upon political reform, humanitarian protection and the administration of justice should not be sacrificed to expedite political dialogue. The reality is that ‘the authorities have consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion of these abuses with a view to putting a stop to them’ (International Committee of the Red Cross, Press Release: ICRC Denounces Major and Repeated Violations of International Humanitarian Law, Yangon/Geneva, 29 June 2007). The threat of prosecution may actually increase the leverage of the diplomatic community and provide an incentive for the governing regime to end the climate of impunity.

Given the impunity with which violations have been committed, and the Burmese junta’s failure to implement recommendations formulated by relevant United Nations’ bodies, (Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, UN Human Rights Council, A/HRC/7/18, 7 March 2008) the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community. The challenge remaining for the international community is to operationalise this responsibility in Burma and hold the junta to account.

The Thailand Burma Border Consortium ( is an alliance of 11 international NGOs providing food, shelter and non-food items to refugees and displaced people from Burma. The Displacement Research team can be emailed at:


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