Issue 82 - Article 7

Protracted displacement, local economies and protection: communities and ethnic armed organisations in Myanmar

January 10, 2023

Ashley South


Jacqueline Hpway

Angela Aung

Eileen May

Mi Kun Chan Non

Anne-Meike Fechter

Karen Education and Culture Department (KECD) school in Taw Oo District.

Myanmar is a country of 55 million people, with another 5–8 million driven into exile, mostly in neighbouring countries (including one million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh). About two-thirds of the population come from the majority Bama group; the rest of the population is made up of dozens of ethnic minority (or ‘nationality’) communities.

Relationships between communities, civil society networks and armed actors in Myanmar are complex, contested and variable. Since the military coup of 1 February 2021, which brought the brutal and illegitimate State Administrative Council (SAC) junta to power, the people of Myanmar have bravely resisted military violence. Many of those opposing the junta have roots in civil society and Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs), dozens of which have been struggling against the Myanmar military for decades.

By August 2022, 1.5 million people had been forcibly displaced and at least 3,000 killed by the Myanmar Army since the coup. There were half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the southeast alone. An Overview and Needs Assessment Myanmar’s Humanitarian Crisis, Period: February 1, 2021 following the Military Coup until July 2022 (9-8-22). Since then, the number of civilians brutally killed and tortured by the military regime has increased significantly. These include ethnic nationality Karen and Mon communities, where the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) team and local partner groups are undertaking research under exceptionally difficult and dangerous conditions.

Tipping points: Covid, conflict and climate change

The devastating impacts of Covid in Myanmar exacerbate the increasingly serious challenges presented by rising temperatures and erratic rainfall. Even before the coup, communities and local economies were highly stressed. The resilience with which they respond to threats is extraordinary. One of the main themes identified in the PDE research is the importance of faith-based and ethnolinguistic networks. These are key elements in ‘social capital’ – resources which allow individuals, families, communities and ethnic nations to absorb, adapt to and sometimes transform the hazards they experience, in order to survive. For most communities in Myanmar, protection begins at home, with civil society organisations (CSOs), national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and EAOs all playing important roles. As international humanitarian access is very limited, local actors are at the forefront of protecting human rights and helping to ensure the survival of communities. Not surprisingly, given the SAC’s continued attacks on civilians, including several well-documented massacres, many are struggling to sustain basic security and livelihoods. Pre-existing economic problems had already been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. In most of the research areas, livelihoods are primarily based on subsistence agriculture, supplemented by some access to markets. Communities require support to develop more sustainable local economies.

The resilience of communities is shared and enhanced by CSOs and EAOs. Following the coup, several of Myanmar’s longer-established EAOs have provided shelter to a new generation of Burmese democracy activists from towns and cities, who have fled the SAC’s violence but continue the struggle for democracy. Inspiring partnerships have developed between EAOs and ‘Generation Z’ and other civil society activists, newly politicised and empowered by their opposition to the junta. In a number of areas, longer-established EAOs are supporting young people from the towns and cities to resist the military junta. In Sagaing and Magwe regions and elsewhere, anti-coup forces have established local People’s Administrative Bodies providing basic governance and services in areas subject to Myanmar Army attacks. Across Myanmar, newly established People’s Defence Forces are successfully engaging junta forces on the ground.

Rural communities are another key set of stakeholders. Even before the coup, there were at least a quarter of a million IDPs in the country – testimony to the failure of a previous peace process that began in 2012, which was not adequately supported by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government. Since the government was ejected by the SAC, things have gone from bad to worse for many of Myanmar’s ethnic communities.

Following the coup, the Karen National Union (KNU, the main Karen EAO) joined in solidarity with the people, providing support and refuge to anti-junta activists, and launching successful attacks on Myanmar military bases occupying ethnic areas. As a result, Karen and other ethnic nationality civilian communities have been the target of repeated attacks by the Myanmar Army, including hundreds of airstrikes which have killed large numbers of people and displaced tens of thousands.

In southeast Myanmar organisations such as the KNU and New Mon State Party (NMSP) are perceived by local communities as protecting the ethnic nation from incursion by the Myanmar Army, which is experienced as a violent, alien and predatory force. The NMSP has had a ceasefire with the Myanmar military since 1995. The ceasefire has provided significant physical protection to communities in NMSP areas of control and influence, although, since the coup, the party has been criticised by activists for not taking up arms again against the junta.

In addition to offering a relatively protected space, many of Myanmar’s EAOs provide health, education and other services to conflict-affected communities. For example, the KNU and NMSP education department separately administer almost 1,500 schools, providing exemplary mother tongue-based and multilingual education to some of the most vulnerable and marginalised students in the country. EAOs such as the KNU and NMSP also offered help in the Covid crisis. The KNU, for example, designated many of its 100-plus health centres as Covid clinics. While international donors were relatively generous, the Myanmar government and army provided little support to these efforts. On several occasions, the Myanmar Army even destroyed EAO Covid control points and treatment centres. As it did around the world, the pandemic had a detrimental effect on local communities. Many lost jobs and access to basic resources.

Across much of the country, EAOs are protection actors. However, in other cases EAOs have aligned with the junta. This does not necessarily mean they share in the SAC’s abuses, but in many cases armed groups have poor human rights records.

Many civil society groups work in partnership with EAOs, or in other cases operate ‘below the radar’ to deliver life-saving services. Where possible, they work with communities to support local livelihoods. They also play important roles in advocacy, documenting and speaking out about the plight of communities. Ethnic CSOs often work in partnership with EAOs, helping to develop policy and implementing programmes to support and protect communities. In most cases these local organisations have access to conflict-affected communities that international agencies do not. Gender dimensions are important to these dynamics, with women under-represented in EAOs but often playing important leadership and other roles in civil society.

Voices of localisation

Three case studies from our research illustrate some of these themes. Locations selected reflect the diverse settings in which long-term displaced people live, the challenges they face and the resourceful strategies they adopt.

The Mon case study features people who were repatriated from refugee camps in Thailand in the late 1990s, as well as other more recently arrived IDPs, most of whom are relatively securely settled in areas under NMSP control. The Myaing Gyi Ngu context allows insights into the lives of IDPs who have fled the war zones into an area controlled by the Myanmar military authorities and pro-junta militias, in an area strongly influenced by Buddhist monks. The northern Karen case study focuses on IDPs in hiding in war zones, and more settled villages which often act as temporary hosts in the KNU’s Taw Oo District.

Mon ceasefire zones

The NMSP (founded in 1958) has had a ceasefire with successive governments since 1995. It was the first EAO in Myanmar to denounce the military coup and side with popular protests against it. The NMSP has not gone back to war with the military. Rather, it has sought to provide a secure environment in its demarcated ceasefire zones, protecting local Mon communities (including long-term resettled refugees and IDPs) from state incursions and military violence. As a 59-year-old villager said, ‘We are safe here [because the NMSP has a] security guard.’ A 37-year-old woman agreed: ‘It is peaceful here under NMSP control’. However, travel beyond NMSP areas is difficult and dangerous, with access to markets a particular challenge for farmers.

The NMSP has provided land to most resettled IDPs and refugees. With limited international funding, the party’s Mon National Education Committee delivers a highly successful education service in its areas of control and adjacent zones of ‘mixed administration’ (where the Myanmar authorities also have influence). Although some CSOs and activists have criticised the NMSP for not fighting the junta, a party leader pointed out that ‘most Mon civilians do not want to return to war and displacement, which they experienced many times in the past’. Many communities struggle to secure basic livelihoods, with very limited support. The NMSP works in partnership with Mon CSOs to provide community development in this remote area; the party also operates 33 in-patient and out-patient clinics.

Myaing Gyi Ngu IDP settlement

This area is under the day-to-day control of ethnic Karen Border Guard Forces (BGF), which operate under the authority of the Myanmar Army. These groups have a poor human rights record, and have on many occasions launched attacks on civilians as well as rival EAOs. In Myaing Gyi Ngu itself, communities do not report frequent violence. However, there are mixed views among residents about ‘requests’ to work on local infrastructure and other projects. There are also reports of BGF forces taking villagers to use as frontline porters. The Myaing Gyi Ngu area is strongly influenced by local Karen nationalist monks, who are generally opposed to the KNU and other EAOs. Undertaking work in this context is very challenging, given that researchers, local communities and CSO workers risk being arrested and tortured by the SAC if they are seen to be ‘politically active’.

Informants spoke about receiving food donations from the monks, and parcels of land. A 42-year-old woman talked about the support received from the monks, and through some international NGOs. Although she would like to, she couldn’t go home because ‘if we go back to our village, we will have to serve in the military’ (referring to forced conscription and portering). A 44-year-old woman talked about moving to Myaing Gyi Ngu in search of protection from violence in the conflict zones. She feels protected by the monks’ chanting of Buddhist scriptures: ‘this area would be unsafe without the chief monk’.

An informal network of CSOs and national and international NGOs has provided services to communities in and around Myaing Gyi Ngu since the coup, including training and livelihood support. This has included work with potentially marginalised groups like young women, to build skills and capacities. Aid providers have to negotiate access with the BGF and other powerful actors (often informally with key individuals) in a volatile situation. It is risky for community actors to work in this area, but they do so out of solidarity with the villagers. Several international agencies have left Myaing Gyi Ngu since the coup because of the unstable political and security situation.

Taw Oo (Toungoo) District – in the conflict zone

Taw Oo is one of seven districts under KNU administration. Prior to the renewal of Myanmar Army attacks after the coup, the district had experienced some respite from decades of armed conflict following a 2012 ceasefire with the government. The situation since the coup has been characterised by extreme violence. In this context, the KNU is widely perceived as protecting villagers from the Myanmar Army. A 69-year-old farmer told researchers that ‘we have protection from our Karen army … If they are not near to us, we will get abused [by the Myanmar Army]’. As in NMSP areas, the KNU provides basic health and education services, which are trusted by the community and adapted to local needs. One middle-aged farming couple explained that ‘we trust the KNU will protect us’.

Some villagers remain in their old settlements (especially the elderly), while many others have been forced to flee from air and land attacks. Relatively secure host communities do what they can to receive fleeing civilians, who generally belong to the same ethnolinguistic and mostly Christian networks. Despite limited resources and amid great insecurity, the KNU and partner CSOs provide food, health and education services to civilians, including emergency relief for IDPs. Ultimately, however, the heart of self-protection consists of communities helping themselves and each other, sharing food, information and moral/spiritual support.


Our research with local communities, civil society groups and EAOs shows the importance of community agency and ‘protection partnerships’ with CSOs and EAOs. The challenges and achievements of localisation and resilience are illustrated in the three case studies. Protection means physical security, but also protection of longer-term (‘second generation’) rights, including access to equitable economies and livelihoods and local development, including mother tongue-based, multilingual education.

These frameworks are significant achievements, especially because most activities are carried out in zones of recent or ongoing armed conflict and violence against communities. In this context, community leaders, civil society actors and EAOs play important protective and mobilisation roles. They need better political, technical and financial support.

International support to local agencies in Myanmar should be a matter of urgency, given the significant needs and proven capacities of CSOs and EAO line departments. This is also an act of solidarity, supporting suppressed people in their struggle for a better life, against one of the most vicious regimes in the world – what Hugo Slim has called ‘humanitarian resistance’.

Ashley South is an independent author, researcher and consultant. Jasminpaw, Jacqueline Hpway, Angela Aung and Eileen May are researchers at Covenant Institute, Myanmar.  Mi Kun Chan Non is Chair-woman of the Mon Women’s Organization. Anne-Meike Fechter is Professor of Anthropology and Development, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.  All authors are members of the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) Myanmar team.

The Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) research project is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund. The PDE investigates economic activity among those affected by long-term displacement, to promote and support inclusive and sustainable livelihoods. Led by the University of Sussex, teams in five countries (the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Myanmar and Pakistan) undertake research in a variety of settings.

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