VIC­TIMS OF CON­FLICT Those dis­placed seek a safe, vol­un­tary and dig­ni­fied re­turn

Those dis­placed seek a safe, vol­un­tary and dig­ni­fied re­turn

Mizzima Business Weekly - - COTENTS - Sai Wan­sai

On May 24, the Na­tional Reconcilia­tion Peace Cen­ter (NRPC) and Kachin Hu­man­i­tar­ian Con­cern Com­mit­tee (KHCC) met for the sec­ond time in Kachin state to discuss the repa­tri­a­tion of some 106,000 in­ter­nally dis­placed per­sons (IDPs).

Ac­cord­ing to the UN at the end of 2018, 97,000 peo­ple were liv­ing in 140 IDP camps or camp-like set­tings in Kachin state, of which around 40 per cent were in non-gov­ern­ment­con­trolled ar­eas, and more than 9,000 peo­ple were dis­placed and are liv­ing in around 30 camps in the north­ern part of Shan state.

Ear­lier the NRPC and KHCC met in Naypy­itaw on April 26 to discuss pro­ce­dures for repa­tri­a­tion of the IDPs.

Fol­low­ing the break­down of 17 years old cease­fire due to the then mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment in­sis­tence that the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Or­ga­ni­za­tion/Army (KIO/KIA) ei­ther dis­arm or come un­der its wing which the lat­ter re­jected, the war re­sumed in 2011 and is still on­go­ing. Dur­ing the past eight years over 100,000 peo­ple have been liv­ing in 170 IDP camps, both in Kachin and Shan states. How­ever, in June 2018, the gov­ern­ment an­nounced plans to close IDP camps across the coun­try, and in De­cem­ber 2018 the Tat­madaw (Myan­mar army) pro­claimed a uni­lat­eral cease­fire in De­cem­ber 2018 un­til 30 April 2019 cover­ing Kachin and Shan states and sub­se­quently ex­tend­ing it again un­til 30 June 2019.

Sur­pris­ingly, num­ber 9 of its eleven-point uni­lat­eral cease­fire an­nounce­ment, the mil­i­tary made it a point in which it stated: “(P)er­sons dis­placed by armed con­flicts will be re­set­tled back to their places of ori­gin and Tat­madaw will pro­vide nec­es­sary as­sis­tance and co­op­er­a­tion.”

This ini­tia­tive has opened up the pos­si­bil­ity to ac­cel­er­ate IDP re­turns and re­set­tle­ment, which is some­how tied to the bi­lat­eral cease­fire, as a short truce alone will not be able to fa­cil­i­tate a long term so­lu­tion for the re­turn of IDPs.

To date, the NRPC and KHCC have met twice and fur­ther meet­ings are ex­pected to fol­low.

The propo­si­tion of pri­or­i­tiz­ing the re­turn and re­set­tle­ment of IDPs across Myan­mar has been there since early 2018. The logic seems that a vis­i­ble sign means con­flict re­mains un­re­solved and a reduction in IDPs would in­di­cate that con­flict is di­min­ish­ing, said an In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group (ICG) re­port.

In re­sponse to the gov­ern­ment and Tat­madaw ini­tia­tive, Kachin com­mu­nity and hu­man­i­tar­ian lead­ers who are favourable to the idea of un­der­tak­ing IDP re­turns and re­set­tle­ment formed the KHCC in mid-2018. The new setup aim is to de­velop a uni­fied po­si­tion and en­gage in di­a­logue with the gov­ern­ment, Tat­madaw and the KIO/KIA. The com­mit­tee in­cludes lead­ers of the Kachin Bap­tist Con­ven­tion (KBC) and Ro­man Catholic Church, which run the ma­jor­ity of camps in both gov­ern­ment- and KIO-con­trolled ar­eas; rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Joint Strat­egy Team, a coali­tion of hu­man­i­tar­ian groups that pro­vide aid to IDPs; the Peace-talk Cre­ation Group, which pro­vides in­for­mal sup­port to the peace process; and the KIO's Tech­ni­cal Ad­vi­sory Team based in My­itky­ina. In com­mon with the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment, the armed groups in­creas­ingly con­sider IDP re­turns and re­set­tle­ment a high pri­or­ity and raised the is­sue at formal and in­for­mal talks with the Myan­mar mil­i­tary dur­ing 2018.

Dur­ing the first three months of the year sev­eral in­ci­dents of uni­lat­eral repa­tri­a­tion oc­curred, such as the Jan­uary 30 re­turn of seven­teen IDP fam­i­lies as­sisted by the mil­i­tary’s North­ern Re­gional Com­mand to Nam­sanyang, and an early March mov­ing back of the sec­ond group of 29 fam­i­lies also to Nam­sanyang. While in each of these moves, IDPs ap­pear to have par­tic­i­pated vol­un­tar­ily, the mil­i­tary con­ducted these ac­tiv­i­ties in co­op­er­a­tion with lead­ing Catholic of­fi­cials, with­out con­sult­ing the KIO or KHCC and with lit­tle civil­ian gov­ern­ment par­tic­i­pa­tion, ac­cord­ing to the ICG re­port.

Re­port­edly, in ad­di­tion, the IDPs were also con­cerned as in Fe­bru­ary 2019, staff from the gov­ern­ment’s Gen­eral Ad­min­is­tra­tion Depart­ment vis­ited dozens of IDP camps across Kachin state to col­lect in­for­ma­tion on camp res­i­dents and ask lead­ing questions like, ‘Who wants to re­turn? It’s safe to go back, right?’ and so on.

The camp vis­its have sown con­fu­sion and anx­i­ety, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the gov­ern­ment did not in­form Kachin lead­ers or IDPs about the vis­its. Some IDPs said they felt pres­sured into mak­ing a de­ci­sion right away, with the gov­ern­ment re­ject­ing their re­quests for ex­tra time to con­sider their op­tions.

There is no ques­tion large scale com­pre­hen­sive repa­tri­a­tion pro­gram hinges on bi­lat­eral cease­fire. In this re­spect KHCC chair­man, who is also chair­man of the KBC, Rev. Dr Hkalam Sam­son told, VOA, “We the KHCC and NRPC met on April 28, the fol­low up of the pre­vi­ous meet­ing (April 26) and had a dis­cus­sion on what to do re­gard­ing the repa­tri­a­tion but no de­ci­sions were made. There are vol­un­tary re­turns with the as­sis­tance of KBC but no sys­tem­atic repa­tri­a­tion that in­volves NRPC, KHCC and state gov­ern­ment.”

He stressed, “In or­der to im­ple­ment the re­turn (of all IDPs) al­to­gether, (cease­fire) sign­ing of the KIA and the gov­ern­ment has to hap­pen first. We also have to worry about land­mines (around the set­tle­ments) and vil­lages that are close to the vicin­ity of armed groups.”

On 26 April, the KHCC and NRPC's Peace Com­mis­sion reached a five-point agree­ment to co­op­er­ate on the re­turn and re­set­tle­ment of IDPs. Un­der this agree­ment, the two sides will work to­gether “based on in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian poli­cies” so that IDPs can re­turn or re­set­tle “safely and with dig­nity”. Ac­cord­ingly, they will jointly iden­tify prospec­tive re­turnees and co­op­er­ate on pi­lot lo­ca­tions, while the KHCC will pro­vide aid and devel­op­ment sup­port and ne­go­ti­ate ar­range­ments with the KIO as needed.

Re­gard­ing this Rev. Dr Hkalam Sam­son told VOA, “Be­cause of this, the word of­fi­cial repa­tri­a­tion and in­ter­na­tional stan­dards are very im­por­tant, as it will need in­ter­na­tional aid fur­ther. Af­ter only one or two years of in­ter­na­tional aid, the IDPs' sit­u­a­tion would be in or­der. Just re­turn­ing them back now will not re­solve the prob­lem.”

In sum, while the pi­lot project on repa­tri­a­tion of IDPs in safe ar­eas should be un­der­taken, the Tat­madaw and KIO should try to seal an agree­ment on a bi­lat­eral cease­fire and not al­low pol­icy ar­gu­ments on po­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity is­sues to be a hin­drance to it. More­over, as the ICG has rightly ad­vo­cated, the civil­ian gov­ern­ment should as­sume re­spon­si­bil­ity for IDP repa­tri­a­tion in co­op­er­a­tion with civil so­ci­ety and donors and help en­sure a process of safe, vol­un­tary and dig­ni­fied re­turn.

Kachin IDPs on the street in Kachin State. Photo: EPA

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