Over half-a-million people in eastern Burma are living in temporary dwellings, forced out of their villages as a result of fighting, insecurity and the whims of local army commanders. Around 100,000 are hiding in jungles, valleys and hills.
That is the latest assessment of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium, which brings international and local donors together in a common effort to support and work with people in some of the most militarized areas of Burma.
The consortium once concentrated its efforts on refugee camps and makeshift settlements immediately opposite Thailand. However, since 2002, it has increasingly studied and documented the movements of people throughout areas deeper inside Burma, in order to get a better picture of who is moving, where they go, and why.
The picture is disturbing. According to the consortium’s new report, army orders, insecurity and related factors forced people in 142 villages and hideouts across the frontier areas to move in the past year alone. This is on top of the roughly 3,200 sites abandoned since 1996.
There has been little if any improvement for people in areas where civil war has stopped. While some 66,000 in the last year fled their homes because of conflict or human rights abuses, tens of thousands more left because of arbitrary taxes or demands for unpaid work on government projects. Coal and gold mines, dams and biodiesel farms are among the schemes to which they are told to contribute money or labor, or for which they are obliged to surrender their lands.
In some areas, costs of food and other basics have skyrocketed since last August, when the government ramped up official fuel prices. In southern Shan State, a small bag of salt reportedly costs eight times more than it did six months ago, and even desperately poor people there have been ordered to donate money, ostensibly for victims of Cyclone Nargis.
The consortium does not make any of the glib recommendations that are popular among humanitarian and rights groups these days, but it does frame its report in terms of the global debate around crimes against humanity and the international duty to protect civilians where a national government is a predator rather than a patron.
Perhaps one reason for its reluctance to recommend anything is that while there is a case to be made for crimes against humanity in eastern Burma, it’s hard to see anyone wanting to do anything about it. There are numerous examples in recent times to prove the point that powerful countries and bodies today act, as they have always done, only where their own interests are advanced or threatened.
This could be cause for despair if international law and diplomacy were the only games in town. But they’re not.
There are, to begin with, groups like the consortium that practice an evolved and informed sort of relief work that is not constrained by borders and treats recipients of rice and cooking oil as partners rather than mouths to feed.
This is not a starry-eyed approach to quaint rural dwellers. It is hard-nosed and practical, acknowledging that the affected people are not passive victims but tenacious survivors who can teach aid agency professionals more than a thing or two about how to deal with a protracted crisis.
For years many of the people whose villages count among the statistics in the consortium’s report have found ways to accommodate, undermine or avoid the demands of military officers, and carry on with lives that are as far removed from those in Rangoon or Mandalay as they are from others in Bangkok or Beijing.
Many have moved and adapted so many times that they’ve lost count. For them, clearing a new hillside and building a house away from the place that a local army command set aside for them is just an unwelcome fact of life.
The problem is not that they haven’t figured out how to organize themselves and resist duress, but that the rest of us haven’t figured out how they’re doing it. As their techniques don’t fit into the typologies of experts and theorists, they don’t count.
In a recent article, Kevin Malseed describes the confused looks on the faces of a group of academics and activists at a big conference on agrarian movements after he asked if their overt formal struggles had policies to engage with people whose struggles are covert and informal.
“When the time for answers came, my question was nowhere in sight, dropped in favor of firing more broadsides at the WTO, World Bank and others,” he writes.
Malseed, who has worked with villagers on the border of Thailand for over a decade, is convinced that there are ways for engagement. But that his question was alien to the experiences and thinking of the conference participants shows how far international debate has to go to catch up with people living on the edge in eastern Burma.
In the meantime, the Thailand Burma Border Consortium and groups like it deserve continued strong support, even as the opportunities for similar work from inside Burma, rather than from across the border, increase. Their delivery of assistance remains vital; their detailed accounting of displacement, unique, and their lessons learned, irreplaceable.