Another ominous chapter ahead for Burma’s ethnic minorities as SPDC troops arrive on their doorsteps
In all wars, regardless of political persuasions or ideologies, civilian families are unjustly caught between conflicts. But in Burma the threat to the people is particularly severe, following decades of draconian military rule and total disregard for human rights.
Already, as SPDC troops move in on non-state armed groups’ territories, or “ceasefire zones”, thousands of civilians have been forced to flee their homes, many not for the first time, in search of refuge. Some have moved into Thailand across its northern and western borders while others have remained in Burma fleeing to the jungle or deeper into ceasefire zones.
In the past week alone mass relocation was documented in and from regions under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the New Mon State Party (NMSP), the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). There are already estimated to be between 1-3 million internally displaced people in Burma and over 150,000 refugees in Thailand. These figures could rise dramatically if the SPDC carries out its threats that “war will break out like it did in 1989.”
Trade has all but stopped on the Thai- Shan State border as a result of local fears of conflict and increased SPDC scrutiny at checkpoints. As a result, local markets have upped their prices dramatically. On one stretch of road between Tachilek and Monghsat it has been reported that there are no less than 20 SPDC checkpoints and as a result vegetable prices have gone up 30% or more.
Forced to operate under a self-reliance policy, SPDC battalions are notorious for exploitation of locals, in some cases surviving solely from extortion and forced labor. Traders and travelers are routinely stopped at checkpoints in ethnic regions and forced to pay bribes, give gas or their hand over produce. Such measures put local business and livelihoods under severe strain. This is at its worst in conflict regions where acute poverty and neglect of civilian needs has led to under-5 mortality rates being as high as 20%.
As part of its counter-insurgency strategy, the SPDC systematically targets civilians in an effort to cut off all possible support for armed opposition groups. By destroying entire villages, targeting schools and hospitals it aims to destabilise communities and keep them under strict martial law. In 2009 alone over 100,000 people were displaced in Eastern Burma, including over 60,000 in Shan State, home to the highest number of ceasefire groups. The region was totally independent from Burma until the British conquered it in the 19th century and is home to many different ethnic nationalities, many of which demand far greater autonomy than the SPDC will allow.
Upcoming events in Burma’s ethnic regions are hard to predict but the clearest indicators that heightened conflict is imminent have been shown by the civilians who have fled their homes, stopped trading or put prices up on their market stalls. For the older generations who experienced widespread civil war in the 1980s these are likely all warning signs of a return to the struggle of living amongst conflict.