Burma’s government has told armed ethnic groups that it will seek to repatriate refugees to sites in the country’s east, an announcement that is likely to trigger heated discussion about conditions in Burma’s conflict zones months after Naypyidaw set out to convince rebel groups to sign ceasefires.
The chief interlocutor between the government and rebels, Railway Minister Aung Min, is claimed to have told the Karenni army that repatriation may begin by the start of the rainy season, around June. It would include the 150,000 living in camps in Thailand, and the more than half a million displaced inside Burma.
Aung Min happens to have just returned from Norway, which according to various reports is taking the lead in channeling $ 100 million-plus towards a ‘peace fund’ for the border regions in Burma – this will include aiding repatriation and clearance of landmines. The latter issue is key, given that more than six decades of conflict have left the countryside littered with hidden deathtraps.
But even if the mines disappear, how confident can we be that the ceasefires, very much at an embryonic stage right now (and clearly fragile, given that sporadic fighting continues), will hold out? And will the abuses of civilians by Burmese troops that caused the various exoduses end, even if fighting ceases?
The military has been conspicuously absent from the wider picture of reform in Burma. The political openings have to an extent served to distract from the fact that business as usual continues in the border regions, especially now in Kachin state. David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch’s Burma expert, thinks that changing the mindset of the military, which has “institutional disdain for ordinary people”, will be a slow and complicated process – until it is achieved, civilians remain at substantial risk.
“It [reforming the military] will also require constitutional reforms, to remove the immunity from civilian prosecution that the military enjoys, and which does nothing to address their entitlement to abusive behavior,” he said in an interview several weeks ago. “There also needs to be a complete overhaul of military training, with international humanitarian law becoming a cornerstone of military culture and the rules of engagement.”
But there is an urgency in Naypyidaw to see the refugees returned – like the nearly 1,000 political prisoners, they remain a blot on a grisly record that is it attempting to cast into history. Therefore it’s worth being very skeptical about the government’s claims of looming “peace” in the border regions; rather, it’s safer to consider the rhetoric coming from Aung Min et al as something of a sales pitch to the international community, and consequently we should approach with great caution the proclamation that the environment is safe enough for refugees to return.
One should also be wary of Norway’s involvement. With Oslo having made clear it wants access to Burma’s natural resources, many of which lie in or near to conflict zones, there may be truth to allegations that it is attempting to “buy” its way in to the region by offering incentives to ethnic armies to lay down arms, after which it will hurriedly manufacture an environment that is acceptable for investment (lobbying groups would cry foul were Norway to start mining the countryside while its inhabitants remain exiled).
There are some promising signs, however, including the decision to allow the International Labour Organisation access to conflict zones, where they can monitor forced labour and conscription. But as with everything in Burma, it’s worth carefully contrasting the words of the government against the reality on the ground.