Political and inter-communal conflict trigger large numbers of new displacements in Myanmar on a regular basis. The military has engaged in armed conflict with ethnic insurgent groups since the country’s independence in 1948. Despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015, several armed groups in the north and north-east, in Kachin, Shan and Chin states, remain in active conflict with the military and regularly cause displacement. In 2017, inter-communal violence against the Rohingya minority in Rakhine state caused a mass cross-border movement into Bangladesh. Monsoon rains also trigger new displacements every year.
In 2018, 42,000 new displacements were triggered by conflict between the military and Kachin Independence Army in Kachin and northern Shan states. Inter-ethnic violence also led to new displacement in Shan, Karen, Chin and Rakhine states. Monsoon flooding led to most of the 298,000 new displacements recorded in 2018. All 14 states were affected by the flooding.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
Disasters and political and inter-communal conflict trigger large numbers of new displacements in Myanmar on a regular basis, but their contexts and causes are intertwined to such an extent that in some regions it becomes difficult to distinguish between them. New investments in agribusiness, infrastructure and industrial development have also triggered significant displacement, the result of lost access to productive land, natural resources and livelihoods.
Myanmar is exposed and vulnerable to a wide range of natural hazards that trigger displacement, chief among them regular and widespread flooding and localised landslides. Monsoon floods triggered about 298,000 new displacements in 2018. Our disaster displacement risk model suggests that sudden-onset disasters will cause an average of more than 560,000 new displacements a year in the future. This risk is amplified by relatively high levels of socioeconomic vulnerability and an institutional lack of coping capacity.
Conflict in Myanmar takes different forms, with competition for territory, and ethnic, religious and inter-communal violence contributing to ever-higher displacement figures. The military has been engaged in armed conflict with ethnic insurgent groups since the country’s independence in 1948. A coup in 1962 led to nearly five decades of military rule. The country’s first contested national election since 1990 resulted in a victory for the National League for Democracy in 2015, but the detention of journalists and other restrictions on press freedom have raised concern about the democratic transition.
Despite the signing of a nationwide ceasefire agreement in 2015, several armed groups in the north-east - including the Kachin Independency Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army and the Arakan Army - remain in active conflict with the military. Conflict escalated in Kachin, northern Shan and Chin states in late 2017 and early 2018, triggering new and secondary displacements. The peace remains fragile in Karen state, where military intervention related to road construction recently triggered new displacement and tensions for the first time since September 2016.
Chronic poverty and competition for resources in Rakhine, combined with longstanding religious and ethnic tensions between the state’s Rohingya minority and Buddhist majority, led to inter-communal violence in 2012. In the absence of a programme to tackle the deprivation suffered by all of Rakhine’s inhabitants, tensions between the two communities worsened, leading to increased segregation.
Attacks by the insurgent Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army triggered a major military crackdown and attacks against Rohingya civilians in 2016 and 2017. Unprecedented numbers fled across the border into Bangladesh, but many are likely to face forced return under a repatriation deal between the two countries. There is little reliable data on the Rohingya population still in Rakhine, but beyond those in displacement camps few are believed to still be living there.
The country faces a multitude of social, political, economic and environmental challenges that fuel the risk of displacement associated with conflict, disasters and development projects. New land laws and economic policies passed in 2011 and 2012 enable the establishment of special economic zones and the acquisition of fertile land for large-scale agribusiness.
The government has also offered tax breaks, customs duty exemptions and multi-decade land leases to attract direct foreign investment, which has encouraged private companies to undertake development projects in rural areas. Such projects have the potential to benefit local people, but instead they have led to the confiscation of land and loss of livelihoods.
Myanmar currently ranks ranks 130th of 176 countries in Transparency International’s corruption index. In such an environment, economic growth is unlikely to yield significant development gains. The country also faces the risk of economic losses from disasters equivalent to 30 per cent of its annual capital investment. If it continues to invest without regard for disaster and displacement risk, their already unsustainable level will increase exponentially.
Where and how do people move?
Myanmar ranked 10th worldwide in terms of new displacement associated with disasters in 2018. Seasonal flooding affects large parts of the country, and monsoon rains in mountainous and delta areas cause regular displacement. In 2018, monsoon flooding during the month of June led to 268,000 new displacements. Floods often affect already fragile communities that have suffered years of conflict, making them more vulnerable to displacement. In Rakhine state, which hosts more than 128,000 IDPs, tropical cyclone Mora damaged or destroyed 60 per cent of their temporary shelters in 2017.
In 2018, 42,000 new displacements were triggered by conflict between the military and Kachin Independence Army in Kachin and northern Shan states, a decrease on new displacements in 2017, which numbered 57,000. The conflict in Kachin and Shan states is characterised by intense competition for resources such as jade, gold and amber, prompting fighting and displacement in mining areas.
In the past, in eastern and south-eastern border states and regions, displacement has been triggered when the military forcibly relocated civilians from ethnic minority groups in an effort to cut off support for ethnic armed organisations. Relocation orders were usually given at short notice, preventing many from taking their belongings with them before their homes were burned down. The depopulated villages were declared “free-fire zones”, and people who stayed beyond the relocation deadline faced serious protection risks. The operations also generated cross-border flows, and more than 96,000 refugees still live in camps in Thailand. Although up to 18,000 refugees are thought to have returned since 2013, armed clashes related to road construction in 2018 are reported to have undermined trust in the nationwide ceasefire agreement.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
Ethnic minorities have been disproportionally affected by the impacts of conflict and related human rights violations, and the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance add to the obstacles IDPs face when they try to return.
Stateless Rohingya and other Muslim IDPs in Rakhine state face particular challenges because of their lack of legal status and systematic discrimination. Their access to health facilities and hospitals is limited, and segregation and restrictions on freedom of movement significantly impede their livelihood opportunities. The majority of IDPs living in camps are heavily dependent on food assistance. The deterioration in humanitarian access in 2016 and 2017 had a detrimental impact on access to healthcare and basic goods such as food. Despite serious concerns about civilian safety, access to northern Rakhine remains severely restricted.
Humanitarian access is also difficult in Kachin and northern Shan states, where a significant proportion of IDPs live in camps in non-government controlled areas. Significant protection concerns in the camps include killings, disappearances, nearby shelling, forced recruitment and gender-based violence.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
The main challenges in terms of data collection in Myanmar are the lack of access to many non-government controlled areas and insufficient funding to produce updated estimates on IDPs living outside camps.
The primary data sources are the camp coordination and camp management (CCCM) cluster/Myanmar shelter cluster and The Border Consortium (TBC). The former provides detailed data on IDPs in camps in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan, and estimates for those living in nearby host communities and boarding schools. The latter reports on displacement in the south-east, including in Karen, Karenni, southern Shan and Mon states and the Tanintharyi and Bago East regions. While no comprehensive assessment has been made since 2012, estimates on the scale, distribution and causes of internal displacement continue to be provided.
In an effort to update our stock estimate for the south-east, we have also taken return assessments by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) into account. These provide partial figures for returning IDPs, excluding southern Shan, but we still have low confidence in our estimate.
For new displacement, we rely on events monitoring, based on reports published by the sources mentioned above, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and local civil society organisations and media.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Myanmar was produced using various data sources covering different regions of the country: 131,000 in Rakhine, 97,000 in Kachin, 50,000 in Karen, 40,000 in Tanintharyi, 27,000 in Karenni, 22,000 in Bago, 18,000 in Mon, 15,000 in Shan and 1,300 in Chin. The majority of the estimate is based on data collected by the camp coordination and camp management and shelter clusters and by the Border Consortium. IDMC’s figure also accounts for smaller groups of displaced people based on information and data obtained from the Chin state government, township authorities in Rakhine and UN agencies. The figures include people living in protracted displacement as a result of various internal armed conflicts and intercommunal violence.
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 is based on reports by OCHA, the Border Consortium and civil society organisations including the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) and Free Burma Rangers, and media sources. Given the limited access to displaced populations, IDMC considers all of its estimates to be rough approximations.