As initiatives continue towards political reform and peace-building in Myanmar, land rights and human settlement is one of the most integral challenges facing the country. Nearly seven decades of internal war have had a devastating impact, with consequences still felt today. There are presently over 1.1 million civilians displaced, especially in ethnic borderland areas where most of the fighting has taken place. Over the years, the patterns of civil war have fluctuated, causing the refugee and IDP crises to vary nationally and locally over time. Throughout these struggles, local organisations have played a key role in responding to the needs of internally displaced persons. It is thus important to take an inclusive view in policy-making and seeking solutions for the causes of displacement. As conflict has continued, business opportunism, unsustainable development and resource extraction have led to land dispossession, environmental degradation and deepening poverty on a wide scale.
This briefing looks at the particular situation of people displaced by armed conflict. It will do so from the perspective that displacement is complicated in its own right, but any proposed solutions to displacement must also be understood in a wider context of rapid land polarization. Failure to take this perspective risks more harm than good. For people affected by displacement, land is much more than just an economic asset. Being able to return to one’s original place is a deeply felt aspiration about restoring the social relations that constitute a person’s identity. The long-standing displacement of people, land-grabbing and non-existence of rights to land in many parts of the country mean that land reform and land restitution must be a central issue in any peace settlement. What happens today with the land is inextricably tied to the country’s future prospects for peace and democracy.
After decades of civil war and ethnic conflict, large numbers of nationality people in Myanmar have been displaced. In the ethnic states bordering Thailand, Laos, China, India and Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of people have fled fighting between the Tatmadaw (national armed forces) and various ethnic armed groups. Military campaigns by the Tatmadaw directly targeting civilians have especially contributed to this.
While some fleeing conflict have found refuge in camps in neighbouring countries, the majority have become internally displaced inside the country. In the western part of Myanmar adjoining Bangladesh, a large number of Muslims, many of who self-identify as ‘Rohingya’, have also fled religious persecution, communal violence and, more recently, heavy-handed responses by the Myanmar security apparatus to a new Islamic insurgency.
Although exact numbers are not available, and these also change regularly as the conflict is dynamic, currently at least 1.1 million people from Myanmar are either internally displaced or live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.i This figure does not include the many other inhabitants from the border regions who have become migrant workers in Thailand, Malaysia and other countries, due to a combination of war, oppression and related lack of opportunities to live a life in dignity.