THE violent campaign of land clearance and ethnic cleansing towards the Rohingya people is finally being exposed by media networks across the globe, intensifying the pressure on governments to tackle the unacceptable conduct of security forces in Burma (Myanmar). But as this is happening, ethnic groups on the opposite side of the country are suffering in silence while international donors withdraw essential food aid which these persecuted minority communities are entirely dependent on.
There are over 6,200 refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in six camps along the Shan-Thai border in Eastern Burma. The IDP camps at Loi Lam, Loi Sarm Sip, Loi Kaw Wan, Loi Tai Leng, Koung Jor, Gawng Mung Mong were set up in the late 1990s, after the Burmese military began a notorious “scorched earth” offensive against 1,400 villages in Shan State.
During this brutal campaign, over 300,000 people were driven from their homes, and hundreds of villagers were tortured, killed, and raped – in circumstances which are remarkably similar to those under which Rohingya currently suffer.
The land from which these communities were driven, has long since been seized by the military and to this day villagers are unable to return home. Many of the women, children and elderly who escaped the violence fled to refugee camps in Thailand, where they remain in limbo, having never been formally recognised as refugees by UNHCR.
Refusing to leave their ancestral lands, many villagers opted to establish camps along remote sections of the mountainous Thai-Shan border. Given the difficult conditions in these isolated camps, communities have struggled to grow sufficient quantities of rice to feed themselves, and for years the families in these camps have relied on international donations of rice, and other essential foodstuffs.
Food aid from international donors to camps along the Shan-Thai border was cut off in October 2017, creating drastic shortages of food and health suppliers. According to Charm Tong from the Shan Human Rights Group, conditions in the camps are already dire, “6,000 people have lost food. The situation is desperate. This is a crisis for all on the Shan border.” Unless the delivery of international aid is resumed soon, these communities will run out of food.
The Myanmar Times reported that the shortage of aid was also having a detrimental impact on the education of students, of which there are over 1,000 across the six camps. According to Sai Pang, who manages Loi Kaw Wan camp, since the aid cuts took effect, at least 30 students from each camp have dropped out of school because they no longer receive the assistance they need to invest their time in learning.
Organisations such as The Border Consortium have stopped providing food aid to IDP camps as they adopt a new strategy which is “focused on supporting the voluntary return, resettlement and reintegration of displaced communities from Burma/Myanmar between 2017 and 2019.” However, communities living in the IDP camps are fearful to return to their lands while the Burmese military continues its operations to systematically depopulate the country’s ethnic states.
Burma’s government has claimed that it will provide the necessary aid to feed thousands of displaced people who are now suffering as a result of these aid cuts. Burmese President’s Office spokesman U Zaw Htay recently issued a statement, calling on IDP camps to inform Naypyidaw of their needs and request aid directly from the central government.
It is perhaps unsurprising that Shan refugees are suspicious of the government’s offer to deliver aid the IDP camps, suspecting it may simply be a, “stunt to divert attention from the Burma Army’s ongoing military operations to systematically depopulate the country’s ethnic states.”
The Shan State Refugee Committee released a statement explaining their scepticism: “The fact that the Burma Army is continuing its systematic brutality against the ethnic peoples, with ongoing impunity, is what is preventing the displaced communities on the Shan-Thai border from returning home. The Burmese government’s offer to assist the displaced Shan, while keeping silent on the Burma Army’s ongoing systematic crimes, thus rings hollow indeed.”
“We cannot yet return to our homes, because our villages are now derelict, or have been occupied by the Burma Army, their militia or the United Wa State Army. Despite the peace process, the Burma Army has expanded its troops, and is continuing to carry out military operations and attacks around our villages. Villagers continue to be arrested, tortured and killed,” it continued.
“We appeal for our rights as refugees to be respected – the right to receive adequate humanitarian aid, and to be given protection until we can return in safety and dignity to our homes once there is a political settlement and genuine peace in Shan State.”
Burma’s military has spent decades doing everything in its power to expel ethnic groups from the country, pushing them over the borders into neighbouring countries when possible, in the same way it is doing with the Rohingya in Rakhine State. The cuts in international aid to these vulnerable communities along border, give the army a greater chance of obtaining these goals, knowing that these people will not risk returning home, and face either starvation in the mountains or an exodus across the Thai border.
With the inhumane actions of the Burmese military making daily headlines around the world, it’s essential that the plight of victims in Eastern Burma not be forgotten, and that international donors respond to their pleas for assistance before the food shortages result in yet another humanitarian crisis.