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Op-Ed / Asia

Give Burma a Chance

Originally published in Foreign Policy

No, the country's remarkable democratic transition hasn't been perfect. But its critics should keep in mind how much has already been accomplished.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration, which took power at the end of March, is the first democratically elected government to run Burma in more than 50 years. There has been considerable criticism of the new government from pundits and in the media, and even in some political circles in the West. Among other things, commentators have criticized weaknesses in addressing the plight of oppressed Muslim communities in Rakhine State and what is seen as the government’s non-transparent and non-consultative decision-making. But while many of the concerns are valid, there must be more understanding of the daunting challenges Burma’s new democratic leadership is confronting. So far, they have made some missteps, but no huge mistakes.

The tasks facing the government are formidable. It must find ways of moving the peace process with the country’s many ethnic groups forward, addressing the plight of the Rohingya and other Muslim communities in Rakhine State, and continuing the delicate process of rebalancing Burma’s external relations, particularly vis-a-vis China. The burden of leadership on all of these fronts will fall on Suu Kyi’s shoulders, since she has assumed simultaneously the positions of State Counsellor, Foreign Minister, and chair of various high-level committees. Success will depend not only on developing carefully thought-out policies and listening attentively to those affected, but also on her ability to delegate. These are the twin policy and personal challenges now facing Suu Kyi as Burma’s de facto leader.

The general trajectory so far has been very positive. Burma has passed through a year of considerable uncertainty and change with no major political turmoil. The previous military-backed government went ahead with broadly credible elections, held with almost no violence, that delivered a resounding victory for Aung San Suu Kyi — a former political prisoner. This massive victory set the stage for the first orderly transfer of power via the ballot box since Burma’s independence in 1948.

Suu Kyi had made clear before the polls that she would be the key decision-maker in the new government, and so it has proved. Her close confidant, Htin Kyaw, was chosen as president, but Suu Kyi is the undisputed leader, with her new title of “State Counsellor” effectively circumventing the constitutional bar on her taking the presidency. Her administration has now managed to enter into an awkward cohabitation with the military — as dictated by the 2008 constitution — without significantly compromising on key principles or prompting any fundamental rifts with the armed forces. Navigating these difficult waters has been a key early success of the government, the military, and the country as a whole. But with its inexperienced team, and enormous challenges ahead, the government cannot be expected to enjoy success on all fronts. Expectations for quick progress — of the kind more appropriate to mature democracies — should be tempered.

The government has taken early steps to address Burma’s authoritarian legacy, releasing political detainees and repealing or amending several oppressive laws — although there is much more to do. At the same time, it has made some initial missteps on the peace process and in addressing the discrimination against Muslim communities in Rakhine State.

Suu Kyi’s April 27 declaration that she would take personal charge of convening a new “21st Century Panglong” peace conference, named for the pre-independence gathering hosted by her father, was made without consulting armed groups or ethnic political leaders. She is now pushing to move ahead with this conference by the end of August, before the necessary building blocks are in place. Understandably, ethnic leaders worried that the substance of the new initiative was unclear and that it was announced without any prior consultation. In a subsequent meeting, she moved to allay some of these concerns by clarifying that the conference would continue the previously-agreed peace process rather than setting a different direction. She also established clear consultation mechanisms. Ethnic leaders are now worried that she may stick to an unfeasibly tight deadline for the conference, eroding trust and buy-in from armed groups, with potentially damaging consequences.

There have been some missteps in other areas as well, again related to a lack of consultative decision-making. To address the longstanding communal tensions in Rakhine State, a “Central Committee on Implementation of Peace, Stability and Development of Rakhine State” was formed on May 31, chaired by Suu Kyi herself. The early focus of the committee has been on revamping a process to determine the citizenship status of the state’s Muslim population, most of whom have no citizenship documents and face pervasive discrimination, both by the government and by the state’s Buddhist Rakhine majority. Accordingly, this is one of the most difficult and contentious issues to be addressed.

The first steps have included rolling out a temporary identification document for Muslim residents, as well as attempts to sidestep the divisive issue of what the main Muslim minority group should be called. (They self-identify as “Rohingya,” but Rakhine nationalists insist they be called “Bengali” to suggest their Bangladeshi origins, despite the fact that many have lived in Burma for generations.)

A lack of trust rooted in years of discrimination by the central government against both Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State had meant that these initiatives have raised objections from both communities. In particular, there has been very strong reaction by Buddhist Rakhine nationalists to the government’s preferred term, “the Muslim community in Rakhine State,” which may make it much harder to reach a future compromise on nomenclature. A lack of public information about the citizenship process has meant that it has seen low levels of interest in most places. In some cases it has faced outright resistance. Success in addressing the complex situation in Rakhine State will require a solid understanding of the nuances, together with a willingness to consult broadly to obtain buy-in (or at least reduce opposition) of hardliners in both Rakhine Buddhist and Rohingya Muslim communities.

Each of these missteps arises from a lack of sensitivity to some of the complex details at play, and a lack of consultation in advance of announcing important decisions or initiatives. Such mistakes are understandable, and can perhaps be attributed to Aung San Suu Kyi’s initial settling-in period. It is also possible that they reflect a deeper culture of non-consultative decision-making, which would be of concern; but it is too early to come to such a conclusion.

Another challenge is the government’s relationship with the military. Both sides have a clear interest in working together. Suu Kyi cannot effectively govern the country without the military’s support, or at least its acquiescence. On the other hand, the military is reliant on Suu Kyi to achieve some key objectives — a better domestic and international reputation and improved military-to-military relations with the West. More fundamentally, the military is invested in the success of the transition: The current government’s failure would be a failure for the transition process the military itself initiated.

Yet shared interests have not always translated into positive relations. The military was particularly upset with the bill that appointed Suu Kyi as State Counsellor, introduced only a few days after the transfer of power. On substance, they objected that the bill was anti-constitutional because it created a position that undermined the president’s authority and that it violated separation of powers by providing for a direct relationship with the parliament, a view shared by some ethnic and other opposition legislators. The military is particularly sensitive on constitutional matters, as the prerogatives it is granted were essential in giving it the confidence to hand over many other powers.

There have been recent positive steps in civil-military relations, including the commander-in-chief’s attendance for the first time of the annual Martyr’s Day ceremony commemorating the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father. But such highly symbolic events should not be over-interpreted — there are still plenty of challenges ahead.

The international community can help Burma’s new government navigate these difficult waters in several ways. It is rightly giving the government strong political backing, but it should not shy away from offering frank and honest advice. Financial and technical support is very much needed, although there is a significant risk that uncoordinated aid projects and overlapping and inconsistent technical assistance will overwhelm the government’s capacity and potentially do harm; the beginnings of this were already visible over the last few years.

Donors also need to keep in mind that the state — and by extension the government — remains absent or contested in many conflict-affected areas. Assistance projects need to be carefully designed and closely monitored to reflect this. In expanding support to government, it is also vital that the West in particular explore appropriate avenues of military-to-military cooperation. This is for two reasons: In the first place, it is essential that the military see institutional benefits from its decision to give up a significant portion of its power. Furthermore, the socialization of a new generation of military officers with their peers in democratic countries can make a critical contribution to reform.

Burma’s new government has come in for a lot of criticism — some of it deserved. But we must remember that Burma remains one of the most successful examples of democratic transitions in modern times. The government should be criticized if it fails to meet realistic expectations, but it is counterproductive to hold a country still emerging from decades of authoritarianism and civil war to impossibly high standards.

People pass their time as Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi visits an IDP camp outside of Myitkyina, the capital city of Kachin state, Myanmar 28 March 2017. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun
Briefing 156 / Asia

An Opening for Internally Displaced Person Returns in Northern Myanmar

In 2011, fighting between Myanmar’s military and Kachin rebels displaced more than 100,000 people. Now they might be able to go home. The military and insurgents should both cease fire while the government arranges for the internally displaced persons’ safe, voluntary return or resettlement.

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What’s new? The Myanmar government’s desire to close internally displaced person (IDP) camps and the Myanmar military’s unilateral ceasefire have created an opportunity to return or resettle people displaced by conflict in the country’s north. Discussions have begun with civil society groups representing the largely ethnic Kachin IDPs on how this might unfold.

Why does it matter? For seven years, more than 100,000 IDPs have been living in camps in northern Myanmar, where they are entrenched in poverty and vulnerable to abuse. Recent developments may allow a limited number of IDPs to leave camps in the short term, potentially paving the way for larger numbers to follow.

What should be done? The Myanmar military should extend its ceasefire indefinitely and the Kachin Independence Organisation should pursue negotiations toward a bilateral agreement. The civilian government should assume responsibility for IDP return and resettlement, working with civil society and donors and observing best practices to help ensure a safe, voluntary and dignified process.

I. Overview

For the past seven years, around 100,000 people uprooted by conflict, primarily between Myanmar’s military and the Kachin Independence Organisation, have lived in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin state and the northern part of Shan state. Several recent developments have created a potential opening for a limited number of these IDPs to return to their homes or be resettled in new locations. In June 2018, the Myanmar government announced plans to close IDP camps across the country, and in December 2018 the Myanmar military proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire through 30 April 2019 covering Kachin and northern Shan. The latter declaration included a pledge to help people displaced by war return to where they had come from. The ceasefire has since been extended for a further two months, to 30 June 2019.

The military’s ceasefire declaration has created a significant opening to accelerate IDP returns and resettlement, even though it has not yet translated into a bilateral ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Organisation. The prospect of the military’s assistance with demining and its willingness to pursue negotiations on troop withdrawals, both of which are in many cases necessary for the safe and voluntary return or resettlement of IDPs, create new potential for progress.

Moreover, in parallel, support is also building among ethnic Kachin leaders for returning the IDPs to their former homes or resettling them elsewhere. Even prior to the ceasefire announcement, ethnic Kachin leaders were preparing for IDP returns and resettlement to begin. Though they are not yet of one mind about when the time is right to start accelerating these efforts, in recent months they have displayed a clear willingness to work with civilian and military authorities on the issue. Some have publicly estimated that between 6,000 and 10,000 IDPs might be able to return to their places of origin or resettle in the near term.

Pursuing these opportunities could not only enable some IDPs to begin rebuilding their lives but also act as a confidence-building measure between the military and government, on one side, and the Kachin Independence Organisation and Kachin civil society, on the other, helping create conditions for large-scale returns in the future. But some initial post-ceasefire government and military actions, such as hurried surveys in IDP camps and military-led resettlement activities seemingly undertaken without sufficient regard for IDP safety, have sown mistrust and threatened to undermine prospects for progress. To make the most of the current opening – and help expand it going forward – the Myanmar military should extend its ceasefire indefinitely and the Kachin Independence Organisation should continue to pursue negotiations toward making it bilateral. The civilian government should assume responsibility for IDP returns and resettlement, and the authorities should work with civil society and donors to create a program that can gain the IDPs’ trust.

II. A Growing Impetus for Returns and Resettlement

The June 2011 outbreak of conflict between Myanmar’s military and the Kachin Independence Organisation ended a seventeen-year ceasefire. Tens of thousands of people immediately sought refuge in IDP camps, where most remain to this day. Within a year, the IDP population had stabilised at around 100,000. At the end of 2018, according to the UN, 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-government-controlled areas, and more than 9,000 people were displaced and are living in around 30 camps in the northern part of Shan state.[fn]“Myanmar: IDP Sites in Kachin and Northern Shan States (31 December 2018)”, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote Of the displaced population, 76 per cent in Kachin state and 78 per cent in northern Shan state are women and children.[fn]“Gender Profile for Humanitarian Action, and across the Humanitarian-Peace-Development Nexus: Rakhine, Kachin and Northern Shan”, Myanmar Information Management Unit, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote

The conflict persists to this day, with extended periods of relative calm punctuated by short bouts of intense clashes. Fighting uprooted roughly 14,000 people in eight Kachin state townships in the first half of 2018, most on a temporary basis. But heavy clashes have not been reported since May 2018.

Against this backdrop, a confluence of factors is creating impetus for returns and resettlement of IDPs. After more than seven years away from their homes, long-term residents of IDP camps are eager to avoid even more prolonged displacement.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019. See also “Kachin and Northern Shan State Context and Vulnerability Review”, HARP Facility, October 2018, p. 6.Hide Footnote The National League for Democracy government’s restrictions on aid provision are exacerbating a decline in humanitarian support to IDPs, making life in the camps increasingly difficult. Since June 2016, the government has prohibited the UN and other international organisations from travelling to non-government-controlled areas, and it has increasingly constrained access even to government-controlled areas.[fn]“2019 Humanitarian Response Plan”, Humanitarian Country Team, p. 14.Hide Footnote Though local humanitarian partners and community groups are able to provide assistance in areas that international actors cannot reach, many IDPs, particularly in non-government-controlled areas, are not receiving adequate support, and lack sufficient food or cash to buy basic necessities.

IDPs are a visible sign that conflict remains unresolved.

Conditions in IDP camps are worsening in other ways as well. Shelters and other infrastructure are in poor condition. As families’ economic situations become more desperate, local observers express concern that women and girls may be increasingly vulnerable to trafficking and exploitation through early or forced marriage, while more IDPs may feel impelled to undertake risky illegal migration to China to find work. Drug abuse and gender-based violence are reportedly on the rise.[fn]2019 Humanitarian Response Plan, p. 13; see, for example, “Hopelessness breeds drug addiction among Kachin IDPs”, Frontier Myanmar, 13 December 2016; and “Women targeted by rampant human trafficking in Kachin”, Frontier Myanmar, 11 December 2017. Crisis Group interviews, representatives of regionally focused civil society organisations, including woman-led civil society and international NGOs, Yangon, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Among the many IDPs who originally come from rural areas and were formerly farmers, there are also growing concerns about the status of the land they once cultivated.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019.Hide Footnote Few have formal land ownership documents because, prior to their displacement, land tended to be managed under informal arrangements, and the security of their claims was based on community recognition.[fn]One survey found that prior to fleeing their homes 55 per cent of IDPs had no documentation that could be used as evidence of prior land use under the current system. In total, 84 per cent were no longer in possession of any documents related to land use, as many lost them in flight. See “Housing, Land and Property 2018 Baseline Assessment in Kachin State”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Development Programme, pp. 32-33.Hide Footnote Various reports indicate that state security forces and agribusinesses, among others, have formally or informally appropriated at least some land formerly cultivated by IDPs.[fn]“Displaced and Dispossessed”, Durable Peace Programme, May 2018, p. 9. See also, for example, “Kachin’s plantation curse”, Frontier Myanmar, 17 January 2019.Hide Footnote

At the same time, legal changes starting in 2012 have undermined IDPs’ already tenuous rights to the land they previously farmed. Pursuant to these changes, only land being used for a recognised agricultural activity can be registered for ownership. Additionally, the state can classify land that is not being used as vacant and allocate it to others. These rules work to the detriment of many IDPs who for years have not had access to the land they once farmed.[fn]“Housing, Land and Property 2018 Baseline Assessment in Kachin State”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees and UN Development Programme, p. 7.Hide Footnote

Moreover, recent amendments to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law have further exacerbated IDP concerns. In late 2018, the government issued a notification under the law setting an 11 March 2019 deadline to ensure land is properly registered. After this date, anyone cultivating land classified as virgin, fallow or vacant could face eviction and a possible two-year prison term for trespassing.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019. This deadline has not yet been widely enforced and there is confusion over the amendments’ status. See, for example, “Dispossessed: The human toll of Myanmar’s land crisis”, Frontier Myanmar, 8 April 2019.Hide Footnote

These and other factors have already prompted a relatively modest number of IDPs to move out of camps, sometimes with government support or assistance from religious organisations. The first small-scale waves were reported in 2014, but these have increased in frequency starting in 2018.[fn]In June 2018, for example, the government resettled around 100 households on the outskirts of the town of Waingmaw. “Kachin State refugees resettled in Myanmar government-provided housing”, Radio Free Asia, 19 June 2018.Hide Footnote Some IDPs who can afford to do so have purchased land close to their camps with the intention of settling there in the future.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian and civil society workers, Yangon, February 2019.Hide Footnote

III. Political Will and Prospects for Peace

Since early 2018, Myanmar’s political leaders have increasingly prioritised the return and resettlement of IDPs across Myanmar. For the government and military, the political calculus is fairly simple. IDPs are a visible sign that conflict remains unresolved. By contrast, a reduction in IDPs sends the message that conflict is diminishing. In June 2018, the government in Naypyitaw began working on a national IDP camp closure strategy.[fn]Ibid. The strategy would cover Kachin, Shan, Rakhine and Kayin states. A leading international expert, Walter Kaelin, is advising on it and the government has organised workshops with humanitarian partners and other groups. It is unclear when the strategy will be released but, depending on the final text, it could provide a platform for civilian undertaking resettlement and return activities in Kachin and northern Shan states. The UN, however, has proposed a number of improvements to a draft shared at a workshop in November 2018.Hide Footnote

Whatever emerges from this process, however, policy set from Naypyitaw will only go so far in resolving Kachin displacement issues. Government-led return and resettlement activities will also require close cooperation with Kachin civil society. While most IDPs mistrust the Myanmar government and military, Kachin religious leaders and organisations – particularly religious leaders and organisations – are influential in the IDP community in part because they have been a significant source of material and spiritual support over the past seven years. As one leader of an IDP camp told Crisis Group, “Whatever happens, without instructions from the KBC [Kachin Baptist Convention] we will not leave our camp”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, IDP camp leader in Myitkyina township, February 2019.Hide Footnote

That said, many religious, community and humanitarian leaders are increasingly favourable to the idea of commencing returns and resettlement and have begun discussing the possibility in earnest. In mid-2018, they formed a new body, the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee, to develop a unified position and engage in dialogue with the government, military and Kachin Independence Organisation. The committee includes leaders of the Kachin Baptist Convention and Roman Catholic Church, which run the majority of camps in both government- and Kachin Independence Organisation-controlled areas. It also includes representatives of the Joint Strategy Team, a coalition of humanitarian groups that provide aid to IDPs, and the Peace-talk Creation Group, which provides informal support to the peace process.

Significantly, the Kachin Independence Organisation supported the formation of the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee and appointed members of its own Technical Advisory Team based in Myitkyina to serve on the body. Like the Myanmar government, the armed group increasingly considers IDP returns and resettlement a high priority and raised the issue at formal and informal talks with the Myanmar military during 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin religious and civil society leaders, Yangon, February 2019.Hide Footnote

Prospects for major progress on the return and resettlement of IDPs hinge largely on the peace process.

For Kachin leaders and organisations, including the Kachin Independence Organisation and the powerful Kachin Baptist Convention, the key motivation appears to be pressure from their own communities, including IDPs. For them, like the government, IDPs represent a failure to resolve the seven-year conflict. A senior Kachin Independence Organisation representative told Crisis Group that prioritising IDPs was about “standing with the people” and ensuring that they are not displaced for any longer than absolutely necessary. “We don’t want them to lose their lands and we don’t want children in the camps to have their education disrupted any longer”, the representative said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kachin Independence Organisation official, April 2019.Hide Footnote

But pressure from China also appears to be an important factor. Since the National League for Democracy assumed control of the government, Beijing has taken a more active role in the peace process, facilitating several rounds of talks between the government and ethnic armed group leaders. According to a government official, it is pushing the Kachin Independence Organisation to sign a bilateral ceasefire and prioritise IDP return and resettlement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myanmar government official familiar with the peace process, May 2019.Hide Footnote To hasten the process, it is blocking cross-border aid deliveries to IDPs in Kachin Independence Organisation-controlled areas – a measure that is exacerbating an already bad humanitarian situation – and has reportedly offered significant financial incentives to IDPs to return home.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin religious and civil society leaders, analysts and diplomats, Yangon, February and March 2019. See also “Reverend Hkalam Samson talks Chinese diplomacy and the KBC’s role in politics”, Frontier Myanmar, 15 March 2019.Hide Footnote

According to Myanmar officials, China’s motivation for intervening in northern Myanmar is to promote stability on the border and secure government support for its broader economic and geostrategic interests in Myanmar. The two countries are negotiating terms on implementation of the multibillion-dollar China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, part of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. To strengthen its negotiating position, Beijing is keen to show Naypyitaw that it can be a positive force in the peace process, from the government’s perspective.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Myanmar government official familiar with the peace process, May 2019.Hide Footnote

Prospects for major progress on the return and resettlement of IDPs hinge largely on the peace process. During the first part of 2018, there were few reasons for optimism, with major clashes between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Organisation occurring through May, sparking further displacement. China-brokered talks between the two sides halted abruptly. Yet conflict dropped off significantly after May, and observers reported that the overall number of clashes for 2018 was a “record low” since June 2011.[fn]“Annual Peace and Security Review 2018”, Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, April 2019, p. 31.Hide Footnote Then, on 21 December, Myanmar’s military announced a unilateral ceasefire covering Kachin and Shan states until 30 April 2019. As part of the eleven-point announcement, the military said it would “provide necessary assistance and cooperation” so that “persons displaced by armed conflicts will be resettled back to their places of origin”.[fn]“Announcement on ceasefire and eternal peace”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 22 December 2018.Hide Footnote

The announcement – particularly the pledge concerning IDPs – surprised many observers. The Kachin response was initially muted, due in part to scepticism of the military’s intentions. Mistrust among the Kachin toward the military, the government and the ethnic Burman majority population runs deep.

Since late January 2019, however, the military has made some progress in addressing this trust deficit. On 5 February, during a visit to Kachin State, the military’s commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, met Kachin Baptist and Catholic leaders. Though they discussed several issues, IDPs were the top priority, and Min Aung Hlaing said his goal was to see all IDP camps in northern Myanmar close.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin religious and civil society leaders, Yangon, February 2019. See also “Military chief discusses IDPs, peace, Myitsone Dam with Kachin religious leaders”, The Irrawaddy, 5 February 2019.Hide Footnote The visit was a step toward more positive relations between the military chief and Kachin religious leaders, who remain upset about the 2015 rape and murder of two female Kachin Baptist Convention teachers in Shan state, allegedly by male members of the armed forces.[fn]“Raped and killed but not forgotten”, Frontier Myanmar, 18 January 2019.Hide Footnote

Other key parties have also held confidence-building talks. On 10 February, the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee held informal talks with members of the government’s peace negotiating team, the National Reconciliation and Peace Committee, as well as representatives of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, and the Kachin State government. The ministry agreed to share its draft national camp closure strategy with Kachin humanitarian groups – a significant gesture given the relative lack of consultation on the policy to date. Since that meeting, the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee has held talks with representatives of the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Chinese government.[fn]“Reverend Hkalam Samson talks Chinese diplomacy and the KBC’s role in politics”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

A time-bound, unilateral ceasefire is unlikely to create the conditions necessary for large-scale returns and resettlement to begin.

On 26 April, the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee and National Reconciliation and Peace Committee 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”. They will jointly identify prospective returnees and cooperate on pilot locations, while the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee will provide aid and development support and negotiate arrangements with the Kachin Independence Organisation as needed.[fn]“NRPC, Kachin Humanitarian Group agree on five points for resettling IDPs”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 27 April 2019.Hide Footnote

Separately, government peace negotiators have launched a series of informal talks with the Kachin Independence Organisation and allied armed groups in Kunming, China, in an effort to transform the unilateral ceasefire into a two-way agreement. These negotiations have been complicated by an increase in conflict in northern Rakhine state, which was not included in the Myanmar military’s unilateral ceasefire. On 4 January, the Arakan Army – a militant Rakhine separatist group and close ally of the Kachin Independence Organisation – launched coordinated attacks on police outposts, killing thirteen police officers and prompting the government to order the military to “crush” the group.[fn]For more detail on these attacks and their implications, see Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°154, A New Dimension of Violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, 24 January 2019.Hide Footnote For the Kachin Independence Organisation, its relationship with the Arakan Army has made it politically difficult to pursue bilateral talks with the government and Myanmar military, because it would be seen as abandoning its ally.

Yet despite the government’s continued push to defeat the Arakan Army on the battlefield in Rakhine state, it has shown a willingness to negotiate with the “northern alliance” of armed groups that includes both the Kachin Independence Organisation and the Arakan Army. It is making tentative progress in addressing conflict in Kachin and Shan states. In early March 2019, representatives of the Kachin Independence Organisation and other armed groups collectively proposed signing bilateral ceasefires with the Myanmar military. At peace negotiations in northern Shan state on 30 April, the Kachin Independence Organisation put forward a draft bilateral ceasefire proposal and again reiterated its desire to “discuss with the government … on returning IDPs to their places of origin”.[fn]“NRPC delegation meets KIO, MNTJP, PSLF, ULA in Muse Town”, Global New Light of Myanmar, 1 May 2019.Hide Footnote Further talks have been scheduled for late May.

The peace talks prompted the Myanmar military to announce a two-month extension of its unilateral ceasefire, to 30 June, just hours before the original deadline passed. While the extension is welcome and indicative of positive progress, a time-bound, unilateral ceasefire is unlikely to create the conditions necessary for large-scale returns and resettlement to begin. “The resettlement issue really needs a ceasefire with no time limit”, said a Kachin Independence Organisation representative. “Guaranteeing the safety of civilians is the most important factor for facilitating IDP resettlement”.

For the time being, however, the optimism of local leaders has been buoyed. Following a coordination meeting with the Peace-talk Creation Group on 20 February, the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee estimated that from 6,000 to 10,000 IDPs from 100 camps might be able to return to their homes or resettle in the near term.[fn]“Thousands of Kachin refugees may go home”, The Myanmar Times, 20 February 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Ensuring a Safe, Dignified and Voluntary Process

So long as there is no bilateral ceasefire between the military and Kachin Independence Organisation, most IDP return and resettlement efforts will be limited in scope. These initiatives will likely steer clear of conflict zones, which, even in the midst of a truce, are generally unsuitable for receiving IDPs because of the possibility of renewed fighting, the persistence of landmines and other hazards. They are also likely to be local and small-scale and focus on IDPs currently in government-controlled areas due both to IDP preferences and security considerations. Still, even limited initiatives are important, above and beyond the positive impact they could have on the lives of the IDPs who are immediately affected, because of the potential for scaling them up if and when the political and security situation allows.

Moreover, over time, such initiatives could make significant inroads. One recent conflict assessment estimated conservatively that 2,000 households per year in government-controlled areas could move out of the camps with international support. At that rate, up to 60,000 IDPs (virtually all the IDPs currently in government-controlled areas) would return to their places of origin or resettle in five years.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019. See also “Kachin and Northern Shan State Context and Vulnerability Review”, op. cit., p. 26.Hide Footnote

But against this backdrop, it is also critical for all concerned parties to be attentive to the risks that face IDPs who are contemplating return or resettlement, and to their preferences about when and where they move.

As a threshold matter, given worsening conditions in camps and the government’s push to empty them for political reasons, there is a risk that increasingly desperate IDPs will be persuaded to relocate against their better interests. This would not only expose the individuals in question to harm, but it could hurt prospects for future return and resettlement initiatives. It is essential that the government properly canvasses and respects the views of IDPs, and refrains from heavy-handed efforts to get them to accept resettlement over returning to their former homes or returning home under unsafe conditions.

A large minority of IDPs do not intend to return to their villages of origin.

On the question of IDP preferences, there is strong evidence that most wish to return to their places of origin when the political and conflict situation permits.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019. “Endline Report”, op. cit., p. 5.Hide Footnote Of the 1,123 IDP household representatives who completed a recent survey of long-term intentions, 65 per cent said they intended to return to their village of origin, but just 6 per cent said it was possible to return immediately.[fn]“Intention Survey Analysis in Kachin State 2019”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 11 April 2019.Hide Footnote For these IDPs, the major barriers to returning home are the risk of renewed fighting, and the presence of armed groups and landmines.[fn]Endline Report, op. cit., p. 5.Hide Footnote Camp leaders in February 2019 underscored these concerns to Crisis Group, with most highlighting as a precondition the need for a durable peace agreement between the military and Kachin Independence Organisation. As the leader of a camp in Myitkyina township put it: “The most important thing is to stop the fighting and then to clear the landmines. Our only livelihood is going out into the forest [to forage]. We are really afraid because we know there are landmines there. If both sides can give a guarantee that they’ll clear the landmines, then we can go home”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, IDP camp leaders in Kachin state, February 2019. In the event that IDPs can return, camp leaders also raised the need for extensive financial support, because it would take at least one to two years for returnees to become self-sufficient again. Essential services would also need to be re-established.Hide Footnote

That said, the intentions survey shows a large minority of IDPs do not intend to return to their villages of origin.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Kachin civil society and NGO workers, Yangon, February 2019.Hide Footnote This group includes almost half of IDPs in government-controlled areas, indicating that there are already many people – possibly tens of thousands – who are willing to resettle and are in a security context where it should be possible.[fn]“Intention Survey Analysis in Kachin State 2019”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Interviews suggest that this group consists largely of families with school-age children. Some may be drawn to resettlement because they want to live in cities, or on their fringes, where employment and educational opportunities and other services are better than in their home villages. Those who have already sold their land may also see little reason to return to their place of origin.

Whether they resettle or return home, IDPs will require significant support. Shelter, food and livelihood assistance will be especially important.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote During a recent visit to the largest current resettlement site, Maina in Waingmaw township, a senior UN official identified lack of employment and economic opportunities as a major challenge.[fn]“Myanmar: ‘Protection and long-term solutions for all people affected by conflict’ - Deputy Humanitarian Chief”, UNOCHA, 14 May 2019.Hide Footnote Donors who have shown increasing interest in supporting development projects in Kachin and northern Shan states could focus on livelihood support and service delivery to help those formerly (or currently) displaced to become more self-reliant.[fn]“Kachin and Northern Shan State Context and Vulnerability Review”, op. cit., p. 7.Hide Footnote

There are also measures that the parties could responsibly take to encourage sustainable resettlement, even among those who might normally prefer to return home. The government, for example, could clarify that those who agree to be resettled are not forfeiting any claim to their original land holdings that remain in conflict areas. It should also relax restrictions on the provision of humanitarian and development assistance, as this would help enable donors and humanitarian groups to offer assurances to IDPs regarding the level of support they would provide following return or resettlement.

But what worries some Kachin community leaders – including the Kachin Baptist Convention and Kachin Independence Organisationis that recent IDP return and resettlement efforts suggest insufficient attention to the long-term well-being of the IDPs.

Several incidents in the first three months of 2019 raised concerns. On 30 January 2019, the military’s Northern Regional Command assisted seventeen IDP families to return to the village of Namsanyang. In early March, a second group of 29 families was moved to Namsanyang. In each of these moves, IDPs appear to have participated voluntarily, but the military conducted these activities in cooperation with leading Catholic officials, without consulting the Kachin Independence Organisation or the Kachin Humanitarian Concern Committee and with little civilian government participation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kachin civil society and religious leaders, February 2019.Hide Footnote It is unclear whether the military assessed conditions in the relocation areas before it moved the families. Civil society sources raised concerns about the locations, saying these were places, in the absence of a bilateral ceasefire agreement, where conflict was at risk of once again breaking out.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kachin civil society and religious leaders, February 2019.Hide Footnote Further, at Namsanyang, the military carried out only limited demining around homes before former residents began returning.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Kachin civil society and religious leaders, February 2019.Hide Footnote

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.

Other government actions are also fuelling the impression that it is pressuring IDPs to resettle. 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 whether they could return to their homes. “Normally, they come and collect the data, but this time it was quite detailed”, said the leader of one camp in Myitkyina. “They said, ‘Who wants to return? In some villages it’s safe to go back, right?’ We feel like the [resettlement and return] process is starting, but we haven’t heard anything directly”. 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.[fn]Crisis Group interview, IDP camp leader, February 2019.Hide Footnote

These developments have created concern among Kachin religious and civil society leaders as to the intentions of the government and military. They also threaten to undermine prospects for future progress by damaging trust with IDPs and groups representing their interests. Cooperation and dialogue, especially with religious leaders, will be essential for the success of IDP returns and resettlement, because the majority of IDPs will base their decisions on religious leaders’ advice rather than government officials’ assurances. The 26 April agreement was a potentially significant confidence-building step but the parties will need to press on in the same vein, with the authorities working to avoid further missteps that undermine trust.

V. Conclusions

A combination of events, including the declaration of a ceasefire by the military, the drafting of the government’s national camp closure strategy and the prioritisation of the IDP issue among the Kachin, has presented an important opportunity to lay the groundwork for IDP returns and resettlement in the years ahead. Much will depend on the outcome of ongoing discussions between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Organisation. Conditions are not yet conducive for large-scale returns in Kachin state, but in the short term it may be possible to identify resettlement opportunities away from conflict zones and to provide support to communities that receive IDPs.

To seize this opportunity, it will be essential to build further trust between the government and military, on one side, and the Kachin Independence Organisation, Kachin civil society and IDPs, on the other. Despite some positive steps, for now, confidence remains low due to years of fighting and successive failed attempts to negotiate an end to the conflict. Moreover, confidence-building measures have been to some extent offset by initial unilateral steps by the government and military that suggest emptying the IDP camps is more important for them than ensuring IDP safety.

The Myanmar government and military could take a number of measures to bolster return and resettlement efforts. Most importantly, they should continue and expand dialogue and consultation with their civilian and Kachin Independence Organisation counterparts in Kachin State on planning for the return and resettlement of IDPs. For IDP camp residents to consider these initiatives credible, it is essential that Kachin religious and humanitarian leaders be involved in the planning and execution. Putting the civilian government in the lead over the military will be essential to gain the support and participation of Kachin stakeholders because of the deep-seated mistrust of the military.

The Kachin Independence Organisation should continue to pursue negotiations toward making [the ceasefire] bilateral.

Expanding consultation on the camp closure strategy, lifting restrictions on humanitarian access, and where possible halting implementation of amendments to the Vacant, Fallow and Virgin Land Management Law would also be important steps. In addition to being potential confidence-building gestures, they would also alleviate hardship and anxiety for IDPs.

Beyond these unilateral steps, a bilateral ceasefire agreement between the Myanmar military and Kachin Independence Organisation remains a core goal, which is especially important for efforts to enable IDPs to return to their place of origin. In this context, the military should extend its unilateral ceasefire indefinitely, while the Kachin Independence Organisation should continue to pursue negotiations toward making it bilateral.

Because the Myanmar government will likely depend on outside support, donors and international humanitarian agencies should agree on minimum standards for returns and resettlement that they are prepared to back practically and financially. Donors and humanitarian organisations should then be prepared to support initiatives that meet these standards. Relaxing or removing restrictions on access will be important for gaining donor support.

While it will be important to proceed prudently, and in a manner that protects the interests of a community that has already borne too much hardship, the opportunity to begin responsibly returning and resettling a significant portion of the Kachin IDP population is a rare bright spot for peacemaking efforts in Myanmar. The parties should make the most of it.

Yangon/Brussels, 22 May 2019

Appendix A: Internally Displaced Persons in Kachin and Shan States