June 20th marks World Refugee Day, a day which the US Campaign for Burma (USCB) would like to recognize in order to raise awareness on the plight of the millions of people currently displaced. The event on June 20, “The Forgotten Voices of Burma: Refugees and IDPs,” was held to amplify the voices of those experiencing on-the-ground situations; although internally displaced peoples and refugees are the most impacted by conflict, they are also discussed the least.
During the event, the USCB welcomed three guest speakers: Moon Nay Li, Naw Wah Ku Shee, and Rin Fujimatsu. Moon Nay Li is a former General Secretary and a spokesperson of Kachin Women’s Association Thailand. Ms. Moon Nay Li has led advocacy efforts at the international level, with the UN and ASEAN, and currently has advocacy work focused on Kachin women’s human rights. Naw Wah Ku Shee is currently a coordinator at Karen Peace Support Network and former Joint General Secretary 1 of the Women’s League of Burma. She has participated in several advocacy trips on Burma at the international level, including several UN forums and the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict. Rin Fujimatsu is Advocacy Director of Progressive Voice, a participatory rights-based policy research and advocacy organization rooted in civil society. Before this, she worked at Burma Partnership and has been working with civil society organizations on the Thai-Burma border with a focus on minorities’ rights for the past seven years.
The speakers covered extremely crucial information on the plight of IDPs and refugees in Burma and provided participants more insight on how to advocate for future change. Moon Nay Li highlighted the severe lack of educational opportunities in IDP camps, noting that 45% of IDPs are under the age of 18. Camps are often very remote and receive little aid after many international donors were cut and the Burmese government blocked humanitarian assistance following the 2015 election. Naw Wah Ku Shee stated, “Because of the funding reductions, we are now facing a lot of challenges. Especially in camp management support, this decreases staff and security in camps. If there’s a crime, there is not enough security to take care of the case.” COVID-19 brings an added challenge to life inside IDP camps, where insufficient medical supplies, cramped living spaces, and discrimination against IDPs at hospitals can make for easy transmission of the virus. Moon Nay Li stated, “Even though the KIO, KIA, and Kachin state government are working together against COVID-19, it is very challenging for IDPs at the China border… IDPs are extremely worried for their future.” The health systems in Burma commonly fail to recognize the ethnic groups and IDPs as the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. Additionally, aid pledged from Japan and the World Bank is channeled through the Burmese government and does not reach the internally displaced peoples, much less villagers in Burma. Over 93,000 Karen, Karenni, and Mon refugees have been forcibly displaced due to the Burma Army’s shelling of innocent civilians and other acts of indiscriminate violence. More than 519 shells have been found in civilian areas between January and June of 2020, and 3 COVID-19 testing sites were destroyed by the Burma Army. Rin Fujimatsu noted that “They [refugees] continue to face serious issues in terms of livelihood and land, education as well as healthcare, even proof of residency and obtaining ID cards… It’s really important to stress that refugee voices need to be heard and also respected. They really have to have a say and be part of the process of finding durable solutions in the future.”
All three speakers expressed the need for accountability of the Burma Army, and that breaking the cycle of impunity would in turn break the cycle of displacement. Karen state is still not a safe place for refugees to return to; policymakers and advocates need to listen to the voices of IDPs and refugees when proposing solutions.
The USCB also presented two video clips that show what life is currently like in refugee and IDP camps. The first clip features an interview of a Shan refugee in the only refugee camp in Thailand. The USCB would like to thank the Shan State Refugee Committee for obtaining this clip. The interview can be viewed here. The second clip is an inside look at an Arakan state IDP camp, where a young girl explains day-to-day life as well as the struggles they face; following the recording of this video, the filmmaker’s camera was confiscated by the Burma Army. The USCB is grateful to the International Campaign for Arakan for providing this clip. The interview can be viewed here. To view more information on the speakers’ insight and presentation, the USCB’s Twitter account has a thread of live tweets from the event- check it out here.
The USCB would like to thank all participants for attending the event and listening and learning about the harsh realities of the lives of IDPs and refugees. The USCB would like to echo the sentiments presented by our speakers- holding the Burma Army and the Burmese government accountable is necessary and needs to receive pressure from the international community. We can all have the power to uplift the forgotten voices of Burma if we continue to educate ourselves and work towards advocating for tangible change.
Thank you to the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand, Karen Peace Support Network, Shan State Refugee Committee, International Campaign for Arakan, and Progressive Voice for their contributions to the event.