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Medical personnel tend to internally displaced people in Myanmar's Karen State following military air strikes in the area, in this handout image released on May 7.   © Karen Medical Information/AFP
Asia Insight

Myanmar violence, hunger and ruin risk deeper refugee crisis

Flaring conflicts between military and ethnic groups make bad situation worse

DOMINIC FAULDER, Nikkei Asia associate editor | Southeast Asia

BANGKOK -- A bitter tide of internally displaced persons, or IDPs, is washing up along the historically fractious Myanmar-Thailand border as fighting spreads into new areas.

Over 50,000 people from some 150 villages were reported to have fled their homes around Loikaw and Demoso in the north of Kayah State and Shan State's southerly Pekon township after fighting erupted on May 21.

The Karenni People's Defence Force overran and torched a remote police station in Htee Se Khar north of Loikaw. The KPDF is one of more than a dozen ethnic armed organizations that have returned to war with Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, since Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing staged his inconclusive coup on Feb. 1.

"There is no guaranteed safe place for the IDPs, because the junta forces even fire at the churches where people are sheltering and white flags are flying," a Pekon relief worker told The Irrawaddy, a Burmese news organization.

Further south along the 2,400 km border, there were already an estimated 44,000 new IDPs in the northern part of Karen State as a result of aerial bombardments and ground fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Karen National Union, which has been battling the fractured nation's central government since 1948.

"I remember when I was a young girl, the Japanese invaded and forced us to flee into the jungle, and it seems I have been fleeing from the Japanese or the Burma Army my whole life," a Karen great grandmother told the Free Burma Rangers, a Christian outreach group.

In late March and again in late April, around 3,000 people crossed the Salween River into Thailand near Mae Sam Laep. On both occasions, these groups were contained by the Thai military until it was considered safe to push them back.

"There are only around 1,000 refugees left on the Thailand side as many of them crossed back after the fighting ceased," Police Major Gen. Anucha Uamcharoen, the police chief of Mae Hong Son Province, told Nikkei Asia.

"Myanmar is on the cusp of a major displacement crisis"

Richard Horsey, International Crisis Group's senior adviser on Myanmar

Thailand has probably never been harder to enter. Because of COVID-19, all foreigners have been unwelcome for more than a year, however desperate their circumstances. Hard borders are tightly policed, and the kingdom's massive tourism industry is in hibernation. But along more porous border sections, reception and screening areas, including temples and school grounds, have already been identified in case conditions deteriorate.

"We worry that more Burmese will flee violence at home and cross the border into Thailand," Police Lt. Gen. Sompong Chingduang, commissioner of the Immigration Bureau, recently told reporters.

Richard Horsey, the International Crisis Group's senior adviser on Myanmar, put the situation in stark terms. "Myanmar is on the cusp of a major displacement crisis," he said.

"Conflict and insecurity are clearly key drivers of internal displacement and refugee movements," Horsey continued. "There is a catastrophic collapse of the economy and massive loss of jobs in both the formal and informal sectors."

Rohingya women in Indonesia last year: Violence following Myanmar's coup this past February has uprooted communities across the country, creating more internally displaced persons and refugees.   © Getty Images

The United Nations Development Program is predicting that the number of Burmese living below the poverty line could double as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic -- unchecked since Min Aung Hlaing's putsch. The UNDP has warned that up to 12 million people may now be pushed into poverty for a total of 25 million, almost half Myanmar's 54 million population.

In 2020, 83% of households reported that their income had been "on average slashed almost in half," the UNDP recently reported. That effectively canceled formidable economic gains made since 2005, and leaves women and children particularly at risk.

As the kyat tumbles to record lows, fuel and imports cost more and urban poverty is expected to triple. Fields, meanwhile, are not being planted in contested areas, particularly in southeastern Myanmar where up to 59% of the 11.5 million population already subsisted below the poverty line.

Food insecurity is expected to bite severely. In early May, the Japanese government pledged $4 million in food assistance through the World Food Program to 600,000 impoverished people in Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and largest city. The WFP predicts that another 3.4 million people, mostly in urban areas, will face hunger in the next six months.

"Movement is likely to be a key coping strategy," Horsey said. "We have already seen tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of people leave peri-urban areas and return to their rural homes, for both security and economic reasons."

Horsey noted that some end up returning to the cities, unable to endure rural life. Either way, apart from illicit economic centers such as the jade mines, there are few opportunities anywhere in Myanmar right now. "This is likely to drive labor abroad, which because of COVID-19 restrictions is likely to be through unsafe smuggling and trafficking channels."

Thailand is already the workplace of over 1 million vulnerable migrant workers from Myanmar, the largest concentration in the Burmese diaspora. Thailand also has an existing Myanmar refugee population of over 92,000, mostly ethnic Shan and Karen, that dates back to a particularly brutal Tatmadaw offensive in 1984. These refugees have been consolidated over the decades in nine camps.

Between 2006 and 2017, over 109,000 had to be resettled to third countries. A steady trickle back into Myanmar seen over the past five years has ceased, and camp numbers could rise again if Thai authorities need to house refugees once they clear quarantine.

The surge in IDPs and threat of serious refugee outflows worsen an already very bad situation. Myanmar is the reason Southeast Asia remains the world's fifth-largest source of refugees after Syria (6.6 million), Venezuela (3.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and South Sudan (2.2 million), according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Decades after millions poured out of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Indochina is largely at peace. But Myanmar had pushed 1.1 million refugees over its borders even before the coup. At the start of the year, the UNHCR listed 1.9 million Burmese persons of concern, including IDPs.

The current situation is confused, but tallying various sources by the end of May, there were probably between 100,000 and 120,000 more IDPs than in January after armed minorities including the Kachin, Chin, Shan, Karen and Karenni resumed hostilities.

On top of this, in the weeks before the coup, the UNHCR circulated a gloomy overview of the plight of Myanmar's Rohingya. The mainly Muslim minority, once concentrated in Rakhine State in the country's northwest, now makes up 78% of refugees from Myanmar. The report said discriminatory laws had "stripped nearly all Rohingya of their citizenship, making them the largest identified stateless community in the world."

In Rakhine, 600,000 Rohingya remain, 144,000 of whom live in 21 displacement camps. Then there are nearly 886,000 -- 52% of them children -- squeezed into 34 refugee camps, mostly in the Teknaf and Ukhia subdistricts of Cox's Bazar, one the poorest corners of overcrowded Bangladesh.

Thousands have also fled to Malaysia and India, along with small clusters in Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia, where 400 Rohingya were rescued from the sea off Aceh by sympathetic Muslim locals.

Rohingya refugees collect water at a refugee camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

In mid-2017, some 740,000 Rohingya rushed into Bangladesh to escape a brutal military sweep ordered by Min Aung Hlaing after some government outposts were attacked. It was by far the most serious Rohingya exodus but not the first. In 1978, over 200,000 Rohingya fled. Some had been butchered by the marauding Tatmadaw and immigration police, and arrived with limbs lopped off -- to the shock of Oxfam field officers.

There were other exoduses in 1992 and 2016. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, by then the de facto head of government and foreign minister, asked former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to lead an Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. Annan's report provided a clear roadmap to resolving the problems there, and was delivered on Aug. 24, 2017.

The following night, Rakhine government outposts were again attacked. That triggered a staggeringly disproportionate military response that appeared to have been planned. It left at least 9,000 dead in the first two months, and thousands of Rohingya girls and women were raped.

"The elements for a solution were all there, and everybody accepted them," a retired Thai diplomat familiar with the negotiations told Nikkei. "Except the Tatmadaw, which kept quiet."

An injured refugee who crossed the Salween River from Myanmar is placed on a stretcher in this handout from the Royal Thai Army, taken and released on March 30.   © Royal Thai Army/AFP/Jiji

No progress has been made since. The month before Min Aung Hlaing -- the man most responsible for what U.N. officials described as the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya -- ousted Suu Kyi's elected government, the UNHCR noted that not a solitary Rohingya had "so far returned under bilateral relations on voluntary repatriation between Bangladesh and Myanmar."

Most observers expect nothing now. Even Myanmar's parallel National Unity Government, formed in resistance to the junta, has been chastised for not including Rohingya.

International funding to support the Rohingya grows harder to come by. The UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration and the Bangladesh government in late May launched their 2021 Joint Response Plan for Rohingya refugees. Food accounts for 29% of the requested budget of $943 million. Only $340 million has been pledged, according to Louise Donovan, UNHCR's spokesperson in Bangladesh.

The 2020 appeal was for $1.06 billion and only 59% was funded, compared to lesser shortfalls in 2019 and 2018 -- clear symptoms of donor fatigue.

"If you look at the last two years, you will see that the foreign funding has been waning, and a paltry 36% of the $943 million needed to feed and house the Rohingya refugees for the current year has been committed by international agencies," Bangladesh Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told Nikkei.

The Daily Star newspaper reported in late 2019 that Rohingya refugees were costing Bangladesh over $1.2 billion annually. Momen believes the figure today is much higher. He said the monthly gross cost ranges from $250 million to $300 million. The funding that is available is being disbursed in short-term grants which is "inefficient and unsustainable as donor fatigue sets in."

Some 18,500 Rohingya refugees have meanwhile been relocated nearly 60 km offshore to Bhashan Char, a previously uninhabited island formed earlier this century from Himalayan silt in the cyclone-prone Bay of Bengal. Bangladesh's Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner said 100,000 Rohingya will eventually be moved to the island camp built at a reported cost to Bangladesh of $300 million.

Resentment over perceived preferential treatment for refugees may be an issue as well. Bangladeshis in impoverished host communities also require aid, and COVID-19 has hit them harder than the refugees. Three serious fires in Rohingya camps on March 22 displaced thousands and may have been arson.

On the other hand, some observers have noticed a disconnect between hardline policies in Bangkok, Dhaka and Delhi and what actually happens where border communities on both sides are often supportive and intertwined.

How much further refugees will get is another matter. In India, it is possible to apply for refugee certification with the UNHCR, but not in Thailand.

"The Thai government doesn't want to have significant populations arriving in Thailand and staying," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, told Nikkei. "If they are smart about it, they would allow a fairly porous border for humanitarian assistance to go across. But it is not happening yet, and the Myanmar military sees any kind of resupplies into these areas as supporting their enemies."

As waves of human misery engulf Myanmar, surrounding countries can expect some of the fallout. A lesson from history is that the Tatmadaw has never concerned itself with mitigating IDP and refugee crises.

Additional reporting by Apornrath Phoonphongphiphat in Bangkok and Faisal Mahmud in Dhaka.

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