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More people have been forcibly displaced over the past year from their homes in southeastern Burma than during any year since 2002, data collected by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) shows.
The main driving force behind the alarming statistics is greater militarisation of the region bordering Thailand, as Burmese forces and allied militias look to rout ethnic armies and extend their control over trading routes and civilian populations.
This has forced around 112,000 to flee their homes, TBBC says, a higher number than any documented since it began collecting annual data there nearly a decade ago. Duncan McArthur, a coordinator of emergency relief for TBBC, said that the figures over the past year however may not be unprecedented.
“In the mid 1990s there was a massive forced relocation programme in Shan state, and after the collapse of buffer zone in 1996 and 1997 there was a huge flight of people,” he told DVB. “So it may not be on the same level as then but since we’ve been documenting on an annual basis since 2002, this year is by far the worst we’ve seen.”
Attempts by Naypyidaw to coerce multiple ethnic armies into becoming government-aligned Border Guard Forces have largely failed, but the fallout from their refusal has resulted in an escalation in fighting from Kachin state in Burma’s north down to Mon state in the southeast.
McArthur said that one of the three main areas of “large displacement” over the past year had been in central Karen state, close to the town of Myawaddy. Fighting erupted there in November last year after a renegade faction of the once pro-government Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) attacked government positions, and has since continued in varying intensity.
Central Shan state has also seen around 31,000 people displaced in the past year, following the refusal of the Shan State Army (North), which had maintained a 15-year ceasefire with the government, to bow to demands to become a BGF.
The populations of the nine refugee camps over the border in Thailand have also steadily grown: in August last year the total number of refugees being helped by TBBC was 145,713; now it is 148,908.
That increase however doesn’t accurately signify the full extent of displacement in eastern Burma. Thousands of people are forced to hide in the jungle or return to areas of past removal, rather than crossing into Thailand. Estimates of the total number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in eastern Burma are close to half a million.
The government has significant economic interests in the country’s border regions, much of which is rich in natural energy potential. In the past decade or so, rising demand from neighbouring countries has fuelled a greater hunger on the part of the government to exploit these resources, causing greater militarisation and aggressive attempts to clear the areas of civilian and armed resistance.
Despite various attempts at brokering dialogue between armed groups and Naypyidaw, with President Thein Sein regularly speaking of the need for countrywide peace, Burmese army offensives continue.
“As prospects for the voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons are directly linked to national reconciliation, the urgency of finding a solution to conflict in Burma has never been greater”, TBBC Executive Director Jack Dunford said in a statement.