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 in 2015, several armed groups in Kachin, Shan and Chin states are still in active conflict with the military and regularly trigger displacement. Rakhine state was the scene of mass displacement in 2012 and more recently in 2016 and 2017 when 800,000 members of the Rohingya ethnic group sought refuge in neighbouring Bangladesh. Monsoon rains also trigger new displacements every year.
An escalating conflict between the military and the Arakan Army in Rakhine and Chin states triggered 80,000 new displacements in 2019. Interethnic violence also led to new displacement in Shan, Karen and Mon states, and Bago region. Monsoon flooding triggered most of the 270,000 new disaster displacements recorded during the year. Twelve states and regions were affected.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Disasters and political and intercommunal conflict trigger large numbers of new displacements in Myanmar on a regular basis. New investments in agribusiness, infrastructure and industrial development have also led to 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 270,000 new displacements in 2019. Our disaster displacement risk model suggests that sudden-onset disasters will cause an average of more than 569,000 new displacements a year in the future. This risk is amplified by 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 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, and 800,000 people fled across the border into Bangladesh. 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.
Unilateral ceasefires and an ongoing peace process failed to prevent 80,000 new internal displacements in 2019, the highest number since 2012. An escalation of conflict between the military and the Arakan Army, an ethnic nationalist armed group, triggered significant new displacement. In Shan state, which borders China, Laos and Thailand, the Brotherhood Alliance - made up of the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army - launched a major offensive against the security forces in August in reaction to having been excluded from national peace talks for the previous five years.
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 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.
Myanmar ranked 15th in the world in terms of new disaster displacements in 2019. Floods often affect already fragile communities that have suffered years of conflict, making them more vulnerable to displacement. Cyclone Mora damaged or destroyed 60 per cent of IDPs’ temporary shelters in Rakhine state in 2017.
A unilateral government ceasefire reduced fighting in Kachin and Shan states in the first half of 2019. Periodic violence and an escalation from August onwards, however, resulted in as many as 26,000 new displacements. As many as 22,000 of them were recorded in Shan, the highest figure for the state for many years.
Displacement tends to be temporary, but it also tends to be cyclical with people displaced time and again from the same places. There were also frequent reports from both Rakhine and Shan in 2019 of people fleeing their homes pre-emptively because of the arrival of soldiers in their villages, which was sometimes accompanied by looting. In other cases, the military told people who had fled violence to return to their homes once they had arrived in new locations in search of safety.
A territorial dispute between ethnic armed groups also triggered displacement in otherwise peaceful Karen state in October, illustrating the continued instability across Myanmar’s ethnic minority regions.
Displacement in eastern and south-eastern border states and regions has in the past been triggered when the military forcibly relocated civilians from ethnic minority groups in an effort to cut off support for armed groups. 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. As many as 18,000 refugees are thought to have returned since 2013.
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.
As many as 131,000 Rohingya and Kaman IDPs were living in camps in central Rakhine in 2019 having fled inter-communal violence in 2012 and 2013. Some may have been able to relocate since 2015 but, like other Rohingya, their freedom of movement and access to basic services continues to be 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.
The government, ethnic armed groups and civil society organisations have expressed their willingness to facilitate the return of 97,300 people still displaced across Kachin state. UN agencies and local organisations are working to ensure that returns take place in a safe and dignified way, but people still have significant assistance and protection needs. Greater emphasis is also required on mine clearance and mine risk education efforts.
Another 163,000 IDPs in southern Shan, Karen, Karenni and Mon states and Bago and Tanintharyi regions have received little attention from the international community. These areas are relatively peaceful compared with other parts of the country, but disputes about border demarcations and territorial control also triggered new displacement during the year.
The issue of insecure tenure over land also needs to be resolved. There are concerns too that development projects in mining, agriculture and logging are impeding IDPs’ return to their areas of origin.
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. 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.
The number of people displaced as of the end of 2019 is based on data collected by the CCCM/shelter cluster, the Border Consortium, OCHA, other UN agencies and the media.
Our estimate of the number of IDPs who had made partial progress toward durable solutions as of 31 December 2019 is based on reports by OCHA and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Our estimate for unverified progress toward durable solutions is based mainly on OCHA’s figures for “temporary displacements” in Shan state.
The government has made the closure of displacement camps in areas affected by conflict a priority, and it adopted a national strategy to this end in 2019. The UN welcomed the move, but cautioned that IDPs’ freedom of movement and access to basic services continued to be restricted. Unresolved conflicts and continued segregation, particularly of Rohingya and Rakhine communities, also warrants concern.