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Bibliothèque Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma

Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma

Internal Displacement and International Law in Eastern Burma

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Date of publication
Septembre 2008
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"Twenty years after the Burmese junta gunned down pro-democracy protesters, violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma are more widespread and systematic than ever. Ten years after the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement were submitted, the international response in eastern Burma remains largely ineffective in dealing with a predatory governing regime.
The Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) has been collaborating with ethnic community-based organisations to document the characteristics of internal displacement in eastern Burma since 2002. During this period there has been increasing debate about whether violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma constitute an international crime. So aside from updating information about the scale and distribution of internal displacement, this year's survey compiles abuses reported during 2008 in relation to the legal framework for crimes against humanity.Conflict-induced displacement remains most concentrated in the northern Karen areas, where armed skirmishes between the Burmese Army and the Karen National Union continued in the first six months of 2008. While the wet season was previously a time of respite from Burmese Army patrols, intensified troop deployments during the past couple of years mean that the occupation is now sustained all year. This has led to the displacement of 27,000 villagers in the four affected townships during the past year. The prevalence of military attacks targeting civilians has slightly decreased since the junta's offensive in 2006. However, the harassment of villagers perceived as sympathetic to the armed opposition is unrelenting.
The four townships surrounding Laikha in southern Shan State are also of particular concern. Armed skirmishes and Burmese Army deployments have escalated in this area since a former battalion commander with the Shan State Army - South surrendered in 2006. The Burmese Army is attempting to assert its supremacy in the area by breaking communication links between the armed opposition to the south and ceasefire groups to the north. Over 13,000 civilians are estimated to have been displaced from their homes in this area during the past twelve months.
TBBC has previously reported that more than 3,200 settlements were destroyed, forcibly relocated or otherwise abandoned in eastern Burma between 1996 and 2007. Such field reports have been corroborated by high resolution commercial satellite imagery of villages before and after the displacement occurred. During the past year, community organisations have documented the forced displacement of a further 142 villages and hiding sites.
However, displacement is more commonly caused by coercive factors at the household level. The imposition of forced labour, extortion, land confiscation, agricultural production quotas, and restrictions on access to fields and markets has a devastating effect on household incomes and a destabilising impact on populations. During the past year, the prevalence of these factors has been exacerbated by hydro-electric projects in Shan and Karen States, mining projects in Shan and Karenni States and Pegu Division, the gas pipeline in Mon State as well as commercial agriculture and road construction in general.While the total number of internally displaced persons in eastern Burma is likely to be well over half a million people, at least 451,000 people have been estimated in the rural areas alone. The population includes approximately 224,000 people currently in the temporary settlements of ceasefire areas administered by ethnic nationalities. However, the most vulnerable group is an estimated 101,000 civilians who are hiding in areas most affected by military skirmishes, followed by approximately 126,000 villagers who have been forcibly evicted by the Burmese Army into designated relocation sites.
An estimated 66,000 people were forced to leave their homes as a result of, or in order to avoid, the effects of armed conflict and human rights abuses during the past year alone. Despite concessions made in the Irrawaddy Delta after Cyclone Nargis, the junta's restrictions on humanitarian access continue to obstruct aid workers elsewhere in Burma, particularly in conflict-affected areas. The large scale of displacement and the obstruction of relief efforts are indicative of ongoing violations of human rights and humanitarian law in eastern Burma.
International law recognises crimes against humanity as acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population. Attacks on civilians refer not only to military assaults but also to the multiple commission of acts such as murder, enslavement, forcible transfer of population, torture and rape when related to a State policy. This definition reflects customary international law binding on all states, including Burma. The evidence cited in this report appears to strengthen Amnesty International's recent assessment that the violations in eastern Burma meet the legal threshold to constitute crimes against humanity.
Skeptics argue that raising allegations about crimes against humanity will merely frustrate the promotion of political dialogue. However, just as the provision of humanitarian assistance should not be dependent upon political reform, humanitarian protection and the administration of justice should not be sacrificed to expedite political dialogue. The reality is that the authorities have consistently refused to enter into a serious discussion of these abuses with a view to putting a stop to them. The threat of prosecution may actually increase the leverage of the diplomatic community and provide an incentive for the governing regime to end the climate of impunity.
Given the impunity with which violations have been committed, and the Burmese junta's failure to implement recommendations formulated by relevant United Nations' bodies, the responsibility to protect shifts to the international community. The challenge remaining for the international community is to operationalise this responsibility in Burma and hold the junta to account.

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