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