Life is going from bad to worse for about 6,000 Shan villagers stuck in six camps for the displaced close to the Thai-Myanmar border.

First, food aid was cut by international donors about 18 months ago, and recently Myanmar troops fired artillery shells near their camps, while drones have flown over their homes and citizens have been prevented from growing rice on nearby land.

A new report, unveiled in Bangkok last Thursday (see video below), describes intimidation and other measures that are making life hellish for impoverished citizens stuck near the border of southern Shan state and northern Thailand.

Displaced people in the camps were part of a mass exodus in the mid-to-late 90s when up to 300,000 people fled brutal massacres and forced eviction from their original villages in central Shan state, some of which were earmarked for the huge Tasang dam on the Salween River – a 7,000 megawatt project backed by Chinese and Thai utilities now known as the Mong Ton Dam.

Most of those people were allowed to cross the border into Thailand and work in the north on orange plantations in Fang district and construction sites in Chiang Mai.

But the security situation has become increasingly precarious for displaced villagers in the small camps along the border – Loi Kaw Wan, Loi Sarm Sip, Loi Lam, Loi Tai Leng and Kong Moong Murng, as well as Koung Jor near Wiang Haeng in northern Chiang Mai province. All of these sites had food support cut by international donors in late 2017.

The Shan Human Rights Group (SHRG) says the Myanmar Army, or Tatmadaw, has been reinforcing positions around five Shan IDP camps, while building new roads and sending out drones to monitor the displaced Shan, despite a ceasefire deal agreed to by the Shan State Army.

It said that in February six 120-mm shells were fired at two IDP locations. “Terrified IDPs have been preparing bunkers and carrying out evacuation drills in preparation for further attacks,” the group said.

Displaced Shan prepare bunkers after artillery shells were fired near their camp close to the Thai border. Photo: SHRG

Meanwhile, Wa troops had also been enlisted by the Tatmadaw to expand its hold over areas in southern Shan State around five of the IDP camps. The sixth camp is at Koung Jor across the border, but has slightly more than 300 residents.

“In February 2019 Wa troops seized hill fields near Loi Kaw Wan IDP camp in Mong Hsat township, in contravention of a boundary agreement with RCSS (Restoration Council of Shan State) and SSA (Shan State Army), depriving IDPs of already scarce agricultural land,” the SHRG said in a statement.

“The extent of the growing militarization in southern Shan State is highlighted in new SHRF (Shan Human Rights Foundation) maps, showing hundreds of Burma Army and UWSA outposts thickly dotted around the Shan IDP camps. Maps also show the extent to which the UWSA (United Wa State Army) has solidified control over its southern territories, to which it forcibly resettled over 120,000 Wa villagers from the north 20 years ago, pushing out indigenous Shan, Akha and Lahu inhabitants – under a divide-and-rule strategy by the former Burmese military regime.

Image: Shan Human Rights group

“Rural subsistence farming communities have been replaced by a sprawl of military garrisons overseeing large mono-crop plantations, mainly producing rubber for export to China.”

The Shan group voiced concern that their IDP camps were no longer marked on maps by the UN or The Border Consortium.

It noted that while media attention focused recently on the Wa’s 30-year ceasefire celebration near the China border, a similar large parade of thousands of troops was staged at their southern headquarters in Huay Aw in Mong Ton – only 10 kilometers from the Thai border, which they said was “a stark reminder of the need to resolve territorial issues in southern Shan State before refugees can return.”

“Our villages and lands are occupied by [the] Burmese government and Wa troops. It is impossible for us to return home under the current conditions,” said Sai Leng, head of the Shan State Refugee Committee (Thai Border).

“Yet appeals to Western donors to reverse their decision to end food aid to the Shan camps in October 2017 have so far gone unheeded. Ignoring the displaced Shan is not going to bring peace,” said Sai Leng. “We want international pressure on the Burma Army to end the war.”

The long-term situation for the displaced Shan seems grim, especially with international assistance having dried up. People in the six border camps refused to return to one resettlement village partly because they had no input in the location where it was built and the fact it was close to a Myanmar army base. Army camps have a long history of demanding forced labor and food from local people.

Displaced Shan are seen near an IDP camp close to the border of southern Shan state and Thailand. Photo: SHRG

Meanwhile, more than 120,000 ethnic Wa who were relocated to southern Shan state in 1999-2001, in a bid to reduce the growing of opium in the state’s far north, have been developing rubber plantations on areas that was previously forest dotted with Shan villages (many of which were abandoned during the Tatmadaw offensives in 1996-98).

A large highway is also being built along with roads down to the Salween River, near the proposed Tasang Bridge and the Mong Ton Dam.

Speaking at the press conference in Bangkok, Shan spokeswoman Charm Tong said a large group of Chinese engineers was brought to the Mong Ton Dam site late last year, but it was not known what the National League for Democracy (NLD) government plans to do. She said there was evidence that citizens in Yunnan and southern China already had ample amounts of power – indeed, “so much that they allegedly waste more power than what Thailand uses each year.”

The International Finance Corporation, which unveiled a comprehensive study of river basins in Myanmar last year, has advised the Suu Kyi government to cut the Mong Ton Dam into two smaller projects if it goes ahead, as the original plan would have created a massive reservoir that critics said would have ‘split Shan State in two.’ The IFC, which is a branch of the World Bank, recommended that Myanmar should focus on dams on smaller tributaries rather than the Irrawaddy or the Salween.

However, fears persist that the Hat Gyi and Mong Ton dam projects will go ahead on the Salween because of the cancellation of the Myitsone dam in Kachin State and pressure from Myanmar’s neighbors. Thailand’s state electricity authority Egat is one of the groups that want the Mong Ton Dam to proceed – despite a growing push around the world for countries to adopt solar and renewable sources instead of dams, because of the vast social and environmental repercussions.

UNHCR chief in Myanmar

Finally, Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, visited Myanmar last week for a tour of northern Rakhine state and camps for displaced people in Sittwe and other areas. On Thursday he held talks with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. UNHCR said later the talks with Suu Kyi and senior officials were “constructive and substantive”.

“The High Commissioner noted that for the Rohingya refugee population to return [from Bangladesh], local development is just one factor in building their confidence. He emphasized that the recommendations of the Rakhine Advisory Commission remain essential, citing his recent visit to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where refugees told him that freedom of movement, access to schools and jobs, and, most critically, pathways to citizenship are the most important issues for their return.

“The Rohingya villagers he met with who remain in Rakhine echoed these demands, noting their inability to travel for livelihoods, to access higher education and to gain the rights that citizenship affords.”

Grandi also encouraged the Suu Kyi government to “accelerate the verification of 98,000 refugees in camps near the Thai border to allow expanded solutions for this group, through repatriation or legal access to the labor market in Thailand. Some 729 refugees have returned from Thailand since October 2016, and action is now needed to accelerate solutions for the remainder.”

The full Shan Human Rights Group report can be seen at: https://www.shanhumanrights.org/eng/index.php/371-shrinking-refuge-new-threats-to-refugee-security-on-the-shan-thai-border