In a sign of its commitment to ending the ethnic wars that have bedeviled Myanmar for six decades, the country’s first civilian-led government in half a century held a four-day peace conference last week, to much fanfare.
“Ethnic peoples in areas of our country where there is not yet peace are awaiting expectantly for the outcome of this conference,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize winner and de facto head of Myanmar's new government, with the special role of State Counsellor.
“Many, of all ages, have had to flee their homes to avoid conflict, and it has been long since their hopes have dimmed,” she told conference participants in the capital, Naypyitaw. “We must not forget their plight.”
Refugees and other victims of the long-running conflicts might be forgiven for thinking they have indeed been forgotten, and advocates told IRIN they don’t expect much to change in the wake of the conference, despite all the high-flying rhetoric.
Some 100,000 refugees have languished in camps in Thailand since the 1990s, while about 113,000 civilians in northern Myanmar have been displaced by conflict since 2011. In the western state of Rakhine, 120,000 people – almost all ethnic Rohingya Muslims – are still living in displacement camps four years after being driven from their communities.
Reverend Hkalam Samson of the Kachin Baptist Convention, which assists internally displaced people, mainly in Kachin state, said peace talks often gave people more reason to be scared than hopeful.
“Every time there is a meeting like this, there is more fighting in the Kachin area, so the IDPs are also worried about that,” he said. “For the IDPs, the conference wasn't meaningful.”
The conference held little meaning too for IDPs in western Rakhine state as it did not touch on their ethnic and sectarian conflict, which exploded in two bouts of violence that drove them from their homes in 2012 and is still simmering.
The UN’s emergency aid coordination agency, OCHA, said in a report this week that “urgently needed shelter upgrades” are being done in camps in Rakhine state. The longhouses were built as temporary shelter and many “are now at the end of their lifespan” after four years of being battered by monsoon rains and a cyclone last year, the report said.
The vast majority of the victims of the 2012 violence were minority Rohingya who were burned out of their homes by mobs of ethnic Rakhine Buddhists. But there are still some displaced ethnic Rakhines living in camps too.
The government’s inability to resolve the displacement crisis has much to do with the hostility of Rakhine nationalists toward the Rohingya. They consider Rohingya to be interlopers from Bangladesh despite the fact that some of them have ancestors who lived in the area centuries ago. Other Rohingya families have been there for generations, having migrated around the region both before and after the British drew an arbitrary border across it when they conquered part of what was then known as Burma in 1824.
Decades of discriminatory policies by Myanmar’s former military rulers, who took power in a 1962 coup, gradually stripped the Rohingya of citizenship. It’s an issue that the current administration and the previous semi-civilian, reformist government that took over from the junta in 2011 have struggled to resolve. Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration recently appointed former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to head a commission that will spend a year examining the situation before submitting recommendations. Some ethnic Rakhines protested Annan when he visited the state capital this week.
Abu Tahay, who founded a banned Rohingya political organisation called the Union National Development Party, welcomed the creation of the commission, though he noted that its three Muslim representatives were not Rohingya but hailed from communities in central Myanmar instead.
He said the government has failed in its obligation to help displaced Rohingya return home, while even those who remain in their villages are subject to stringent movement restrictions and of lack access to healthcare, employment, and education.
“People are losing their futures,” he said.
Resolving displacement in northern Myanmar will prove equally difficult – especially as fighting is ongoing between the military and three ethnic armed groups: the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the Arakan Army.
Myanmar’s military refused to let representatives from those groups attend last week’s meeting in the capital. The meeting was dubbed the “21st Century Panglong Conference”, invoking the 1947 Panglong Agreement between major ethnic organisations and Aung San, the independence hero and father of Aung San Suu Kyi who was assassinated shortly thereafter. Some took the military’s hardline stance as a sign that it was not genuinely interested in talking peace.
“The international community and central government say an inclusive peace process is beginning in Myanmar, but there is still fighting every day in Ta’ang areas,” said Mai Lyruk, an activist with the Ta’ang Student and Youth Union.
“I get no special hope from the 21st Century Panglong Conference, because it’s a very small step for peace negotiations and doesn't include all ethnic armed organisations,” he said by phone from Shan State, where most ethnic Ta’ang live.
Another peace conference is scheduled in six months. If the second half of the year is anything like the last, the number of IDPs in camps can be expected to swell as fighting in the north continues.
Some 12,000 ethnic Ta’ang and Shan villagers fled their homes in Shan state in the first half of 2016, while 240 civilians were newly displaced in Kachin state during the same period, the OCHA report said.
(TOP PHOTO: Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi sits in the front row at a peace conference that began 31 August 2016 in Naypyitaw. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon is on the far left, and President Htin Kyaw sits to her right. CREDIT: Paul Vrieze)