A human rights group in Karen State is calling for the demilitarisation of former conflict areas to ensure that Burma’s ongoing peace process is “stable and long lasting”.
In a report released on Thursday, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) recommended that “all armed actors” in ceasefire areas in southeastern Burma remove troops and camps so that civilians can safely return to rebuild communities displaced by decades of conflict.
“If refugees are to return home, demilitarisation in the area needs to happen,” said Way Lay, the group’s advocacy coordinator.
“The south of Myanmar [Burma] is covered in military camps, so it’s inevitable that internally displaced persons will feel there is no guarantee for their safety and genuine peace,” he told DVB on Thursday.
The report comes one year after a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by Burma’s government and eight ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA).
While some civilians living in areas affected by the ceasefire said the agreement had made their lives easier, others remained wary of the presence of soldiers, the report said.
“The benefit is that after the ceasefire was signed, we can travel freely as we please,” one woman from Tenasserim Division told KHRG. She said that previously, female villagers were too scared to go into the jungle alone when they knew there were soldiers nearby.
However, another woman from Kawkareik Township in Karen State said the fear of conflict-related sexual violence was still very much alive.
“I feel worried as a woman when we are travelling because they are soldiers. We are afraid of them. […] We do not have any way to protect ourselves,” she said, according to the report.
And while most fighting has stopped, the threat of landmines and fighting between government troops and a splinter group of the ceasefire DKBA — including clashes on Thursday — continue to displace thousands of local people.
Niki Esse de Lang from KHRG said the clearing of landmines needs to be done carefully, but can only begin after fighting has ended completely. He also suggested that international groups that want to get involved consult with local civilians first.
“Demining is a complicated process and it should not be done arbitrarily,” he said.
The report also calls on the government to ensure “fair and adequate compensation” for land that has been confiscated over decades of conflict.
“Land confiscation is a big problem. Refugee return is also linked to the return of their land, as some might want to return home but they find their land has been taken,” said Way Lay.
In October of last year, KHRG reported that some IDPs attempted to return to their native villages in southern Tenasserim Division, only to discover that their land had been turned into a palm oil plantation.
In the report released on Thursday, the KHRG urged the government army and other armed groups active in southeastern Burma to halt confiscation of land “for the purposes of constructing military facilities, which include camps, barracks, and housing for the families of soldiers”.