Representatives of Shan refugees have voiced skepticism about an offer from the Suu Kyi government to help feed thousands of people in camps for displaced people near the Thai-Myanmar border, who have been hit by cuts to international assistance.

A government spokesman said last week leaders of camps in Shan State should inform the government about their plight and request aid.

U Zaw Htay, director-general of the State Counsellor’s Office, urged camp leaders to report their conditions to the government and to ask for aid. He said State Counsellor Suu Kyi had laid out the policy under which the government would pay for costs related to food, education, and healthcare of the displaced people.

“Some non-government organizations are helping but if these NGOs cut the supply and there is a shortage, report to the government. The National Reconciliation and Peace Centre will lend a hand,” he was quoted as saying.

There are camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in many parts of northern Myanmar – areas controlled by both the government and ethnic armed groups. The UN’s World Food Programme was providing food to camps with about 150,000 people in Kachin and northern Shan State but supplies were cut last year amid renewed fighting in both states and camps have suffered food shortages since then.

There is also more than 110,000 IDPs in country’s southeast. The most recent concern involves about 6,000 Shan in five camps on the Thai border – Loi Tai Laeng, Loi Kaw Wan, Loi Lam, Loi Sarmsip and Kong Moong Murng – who had food aid cut at the beginning of October.

U Zaw Htay said the situation for displaced people on the Thai border was “a little complicated, as we have to talk to the Thai government”.

Loi Tai Laeng camp

Just a stunt to divert attention from abuses?

However, the Thai Border branch of the Shan State Refugee Committee said on November 1 it had not been contacted by the government on this issue and had doubts about the sincerity of the offer. They feared was just “a publicity stunt to divert attention from the Burma Army’s ongoing military operations systematically depopulating Burma’s ethnic states.”

Most of the displaced Shan on the border fled a huge “scorched earth” campaign in central Shan State in 1996-98, which drove over 300,000 people from their homes. “Hundreds of villagers were tortured, killed, and raped,” the committee noted in their press release.

“The majority of the 1,400 villages forcibly displaced 20 years ago remain abandoned to this day, the land seized and occupied by Burma Army troops. Today the same horror is unfolding in northern Rakhine State, while large-scale militarization and offensives are continuing in Kachin and Shan States.

“The fact that the Burma Army is continuing its systematic brutality against the ethnic peoples, with ongoing impunity, is what is preventing the displaced communities on the Shan-Thai border from returning home. The Burmese government’s offer to assist the displaced Shan, while keeping silent on the Burma Army’s ongoing systematic crimes, thus rings hollow indeed.

“What we want from the Burmese government is a political resolution to the conflict, which will lead to a withdrawal of Burma Army troops from our homelands and an end to military abuses,” SSRC (TB) chairman Sai Lieng said from Koung Jor camp in Chiang Mai province. “Unless this takes place, it is impossible for us to return home.”

He reiterated their urgent appeal to the international community to resume aid directly to the Shan IDPs and refugees until they can return home voluntarily in safety and dignity.

The Thai Border Consortium (TBC), the body which arranges food and other support to nine mainly Karen refugee camps along the border, announced two years ago that food rations to the six sites would be cut, because of a substantial drop-off in donor funding.

Charm Tong: ‘Situation is desperate’

The plight of displaced Shan in IDP camps along the Thai border was raised by Charm Tong, a well-known Shan activist, who appealed for assistance during a discussion in Bangkok about the refugee situation on the Thai-Myanmar border on October 18.

“There was a total cut in food aid because of a funding decrease from donors – 6,000 people have lost food. The situation is desperate. This is a crisis for all on the Shan border,” Charm Tong told the gathering at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.

Charm Tong said more than 1,000 of the displaced Shan were children and showed pictures of Shan in the IDP camps holding up banners appealing for the Myanmar Army to “stop fighting ethnic groups” and to “Get out of Shan State.”

The activist said a quarter of the Burman Army was in Shan State and many of the villages that the displaced people came from had been destroyed.

“Fighting has increased since the National Ceasefire Agreement started in 2011. There is no trust and no peace on the ground for Shan people.”

Reports document massacres and gang rapes

The attacks on the Shan 20 years ago were documented in reports by rights groups, such as ‘License to Rape’ about the extensive use of rape as a weapon of war by Burmese troops, and ‘Dispossession’ about the brutal relocation of villages in central Shan State in the late 90s.

Thai officials allowed hundreds of thousands of Shan to cross the border but academics have said that Thai security chiefs believed the camps set up for the Karen from 1984 till 1997 – in areas further south – were a mistake because they created a “pull factor” and encouraged more people to flee.

“The displaced were forced to survive as migrant workers,” Charm Tong said. “In some cases, three generations of [Shan] families fled and had to find any work for their survival.”

Many ended up on orange farms in Fang district but had to endure low wages amid widespread use of toxic pesticides. There were hundreds of workers on some farms and small schools had been set up for their children, she said. Others found themselves in crowded unsanitary facilities near building sites throughout northern Thailand.

Young Shan boys and children on a Thai farm
Shan children are seen on a farm in the north of Thailand. Photo: Charm Tong/ SHRG

Recent Myanmar governments have insisted that displaced people who want to work in Thailand should return and undergo a ‘Nationality Verification’ process. But observers say this is unrealistic, as many villages where they used to live have been moved and no longer exist. So, the prospect of them finding someone to vouch for them is tricky, slow, and risky.

Former TBC chief Jack Dunford spoke at the same discussion. He said violence against ethnic Karen in the mid-90s had caused tens of thousands to flee into Thailand. But the international community only heard limited reports about this.

New technology helping to reveal army’s abuses

“Technology was very different in those days. There has been amazing footage of the exodus of Rohingya from drones, etc,” he said. “About 250,000 Rohingya fled [to Bangladesh] in 1992, but I don’t remember any major coverage of that in the international media.”

Dunford said the downfall of Manerplaw, the headquarters of the Karen resistance, in January 1995 led to waves of refugees flooding into western Thailand, from Kanchanaburi, west of Bangkok, right up to Mae Hong Son in the far north. But the numbers were smaller than what occurred in Rakhine State recently.

Sally Thompson, current head of TBC, said new global crises such as the mass exodus to Bangladesh meant that refugees in Thailand dropped down the list of priorities in terms of funding. “New crises are putting demands on the same pot [of international assistance].

Asked about factors hindering a return of the 100,000 or so refugees in the Thai camps going back to southeast Myanmar, she said “People in the [border] camps here still live in a conflict mentality. You don’t go into a ceasefire, then look at long-term development.” It would take time.

For Charm Tong, there was a disturbing disconnect – millions being poured into peace talks, yet Shan people were still being pushed off their land, often to make way for mega-projects, and left with nothing.

“They say peace-building is a separate issue. But how about linking these issues to people who want to invest in dams [on the Salween] – what about the people displaced for those dams? I think there’s something missing in the policy and development discussions.”

Maps of Myanmar showing areas of conflict in 2012, left, and 2013, right.
A map of Myanmar showing areas of conflict in 2013, two years after the peace process started. (Charm Tong/SHRG).