Refugee Month 2020: Shan and Ta’ang Refugees

Featured Image: Shan Human Rights Group

In light of June being Refugee Awareness Month with World Refugee Day on June 20th, the US Campaign for Burma would like to highlight the history of refugees and internally displaced peoples in the various states of Burma. This installment will cover Shan state, following our installments on Chin state, Arakan state, and Kachin state

The people of Shan state have been fighting for greater autonomy for over 50 years and have continuously been affected by armed conflict in their region. Shan state in itself is ethnically diverse with approximately 9 groups. The two main ethnic groups in Shan state are the Shan, which are estimated to number about 8.5 million, and the Palaung or Ta’ang, which are estimated to number about 1 million. The Shan State Army, who fight alongside the Ta’ang Liberation Army troops, responds to the Burma Army’s violence by engaging in clashes which result in the forced displacement of thousands of Shan and Ta’ang civilians. 

The Burma Army’s troops are responsible for multiple forms of human rights abuses in Shan state: civilians have reported being used as forced labor, having their food and crops stolen and/or distroy by the Burma Army, getting their villages and homes burned down, and being trapped in the middle of fighting. As recently as April 2020, the Burma Army ordered villagers to provide materials and forced labor to build a military camp in Lashio Township. These blatant atrocities and violation of basic human rights have caused many to flee their homes and take refuge in internally displaced peoples camps in Shan state or on the Thai-Burma border. According to 2019 estimates from the OCHA, there are 32 IDP camps in Shan State with a total of 8,841 IDPs, although the actual number is likely higher as there are many displaced people who do not live in IDP camps that are not included in this statistic. 

Children play at a temporary IDP camp in Shan State, Maung Zaw/The Myanmar Times

Similarly to the Shan, Ta’ang clashes with the Burma Army cause many to be displaced. Estimates from 2014 state that Burma Army operations have caused close to 3,000 Ta’ang to become displaced while enduring reports of sexual harassment, forced labor, and shelling near Ta’ang villages. In July 2019, four Ta’ang youths were detained by the Burma Army for over two weeks. Ethnic Ta’angs are commonly overlooked and are forced to take shelter in relatives’ houses, monasteries or cemeteries when displaced. Ta’angs are constantly cut out of peacemaking processes and are never invited as ceasefire signatories.

Since fighting broke out in 2011, more than 17,000 IDPs have fled their homes, moreover, development projects from foreign investors also account for this number. The IDPs in Shan state are concerned about their land holdings and fear being unable to return to their homes due to logging, mining, and the Chinese-backed Muse-Mandalay project. Seizure of civilian land leaves many unjustly displaced and is an illegal practice on the part of the Burmese government and investors. In June 2020, farmers in Hsiheng Township protested the Burma Army confiscating their land without compensation and prohibiting farmers from cultivating it. 

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

A common place for Shan IDPs to find themselves residing in are IDP camps on the Thai-Burma border. However, the Shan are not provided official refugee status by Thailand and/or UNHCR and so lack many legal protections as well as humanitarian aid, work, health, and education. In the six IDP camps on the Thai-Burma border, international food aid was cut in 2018, and in February 2019, artillery shells were fired at the camps. All of the camps have either run out of food or are close to running out due to aid cuts and decreased funding for The Border Consortium, making life extremely difficult for the Shan refugees along Thailand-Burma camps. 

In northern Shan State, more than 700 IDPs are struggling in makeshift camps in Kutkai in addition to an estimated 500 IDPs in monasteries and churches in Ham Ngai village tract. Additionally, more than 2,000 people in Lashio District are living with little to no food due to government lockdowns to prevent COVID-19. The added threat of a global pandemic has made IDPs’ access to food even harder to come by- lockdowns have caused farmers to struggle and less aid is being delivered to camps. Additionally, internally displaced peoples are a particularly vulnerable population as poor living conditions and lack of necessary resources can allow the virus to spread easily. These are simply estimated numbers and do not reflect the true amount of unreported IDPs and refugees would increase the count if included in reports.

Burma Army refuses Shan IDPs access to village amid ongoing clashes, The Irrawaddy

In the words of Sai Leng, head of the Shan State Refugee Committee (Thai Border), “Ignoring the displaced Shan is not going to bring peace. We want international pressure on the Burma Army to end the war.” It is with this that the US Campaign for Burma encourages all civilians and the US government to consider the plight of the IDPs and refugees of Burma, and prioritize educating yourself on the needs and struggles of these people. 

For more information on conflict and IDPs in Shan State, click here to access USCB’s Crowd Map and read articles from each state. The USCB will also be holding a virtual event with speakers from the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand and Karen Peace Support Network on June 20th at 1 PM EST- mark your calendars and look out for future details. 

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