Introduction and the history of IDPs in Lu Thaw Township
Thousands of Karen Internal Displaced Peoples (IDPs) were displaced from Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District during Tatmadaw offensives spanning from 1975 to 2008. During the military offensives, many of the villagers who were living in Lu Thaw Township fled their original villages and lived in make-shift, temporary housing in the jungle and mountainous areas in Lu Thaw Township and other areas in Hpapun District. Most villagers displaced to Naw Yoh Hta, Kaw Loh Der, Yeh Muh Plaw and other village tracts in Lu Thaw Township but some villagers also displaced to refugee camps in Thailand. These IDPs and refugees fled due to heavy attacks on their original villages as well as in an effort to evade being forced to porter for the Tatmadaw and other forms of human rights abuses.
KHRG has consistently reported on the inability of IDPs in Lu Thaw Township to return to their original villages, even after the 2012 preliminary ceasefire agreement was signed. According to updated information received on July 31st 2017, there are currently 31,259 IDPs in Lu Thaw Township such as Saw E---, 69 years old. Saw E--- testified, “I was displaced from F--- village on October 10th 1975 because of Myanmar government military [Tatmadaw] attacks. I have not been able to return to my village since that time. I have to stay in other peoples’ villages every year. Even after the 2012 preliminary ceasefire and Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement were signed we do not feel that it would be safe to return home.”
IDP protest and village agency
On May 15th 2017, IDPs protested against the Tatmadaw, calling for the withdrawal of their army camps in Lu Thaw Township, Hpapun District. The IDPs want to return home because in their current IDP sites, the quality of the soil is not good enough to produce sufficient paddy rice and they also do not have adequate access to land so that they can earn their livings from their hill farms. As a result, the displaced villagers living in the IDP sites have faced serious food shortages as the paddy fields that they farmed could not produce enough paddy grains to collect. Moreover, there are no other job opportunities through which they could overcome their livelihood challenges. Due to this situation, many villagers wanted to go back to work on their former lands which they have not been able to cultivate since they left their original villages. Indeed, 50 year-old village tract leader Saw G--- said that 82 plain farms are unable to be cultivated and so they remain unused due to safety concerns caused by the high numbers of Tatmadaw camps are situated near their working areas. According to a KHRG researcher from Lu Thaw Township, 14 Tatmadaw camps are located within four village tracts in Lu Thaw Township. Due to the multiple livelihood challenges faced by IDPs, they held a protest urging the Tatmadaw to withdraw from their original working areas and villages in order to be able to cultivate their former land and work freely in their original working areas.
On May 15th 2017, 615 IDPs from Pla Hkoh, Saw Muh Plaw and Yeh Muh Plaw village tracts in Lu Thaw Township participated in a protest urging the Tatmadaw to withdraw their army camps from their original working areas and villages and in order to enable local community members to travel freely and safely to their local areas and to their fields. The protest was organised by Saw H---, who is 45 years old and lives in I--- village. The protest took place in A--- place, which is just 25 minutes by foot from Keh Deh Kyoh army camp. Protestors held up four signs expressing their main protest objectives: 1) We don’t want to be forcibly ruled by other ethnic [groups] 2) Tatmadaw camps based in our areas [original working areas and villages] have to withdraw within 2017 3) We want to work freely and peacefully for our livelihood 4) We want to be ruled by our own ethnic leaders [Karen National Union].
Similar protest objectives were also raised in a protest by IDPs in Ei Tu Hta Camp, according to a recent Karen News’ article. The article states that on May 24th 2017, IDPs’ in Ei Tu Hta Camp and local villagers who live around that camp held a protest calling for the withdrawal of Tatmadaw troops based in their original areas in order for IDPs to return to their original villages safely. Other protestor demands include the removal of landmines from displaced villagers’ villages, farms, orchards and roads that they use, a properly monitored code of conduct for the Tatmadaw and KNLA to uphold, and the inclusion of a comprehensive and clear plan in any peace agreement for the reintegration of IDPs and refugees.
Unfortunately, the Lu Thaw Township IDPs’ main protest objectives were not immediately achieved. According to the latest update received on July 31st 2017 from a KHRG researcher in Lu Thaw Township, even though villagers held a protest urging the Tatmadaw to withdraw their army camps within 2017, the Tatmadaw has not decreased their military presence. Indeed, the Tatmadaw have actually increased their activity and are now patrolling in local areas near villages beside the vehicle road and have also reinforced their military presence. IDPs reported that, “Before we held a protest they only patrolled once a month but these days they patrol every week.” Due to the Tatmadaw’s actions, IDPs’ trust in the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) has significantly decreased.
The residents in the IDP sites do not feel that it is safe to return home for many reasons. Firstly, they have many bad memories about the life risks they experienced during the military offensive period before the 2012 preliminary ceasefire was signed. In addition, the Tatmadaw planted landmines around their army camps which are located near the IDPs’ original working areas and villages. The IDPs in Lu Thaw Township fear for their safety as they mainly work on hill and plain farms near to where the Tatmadaw has planted landmines. Additionally, due to past experiences, they are also worried that the Tatmadaw will kill, arrest, torture and force them to serve as porters if they unexpectedly encounter them. Furthermore, after a recent incident where the Tatmadaw burnt down seven hill farms, villagers are very concerned that the Tatmadaw will set more hill farms on fire again in the coming years. Saw J---, who is 65 years old, reported that on March 26th 2017, Tatmadaw Light Infantry Battalion (LIB) #351, based in Kuh Hkoh, Pla Hkoh village tract and Infantry Battalion (IB) #72, based in Pwa Gaw, Yeh Muh Plaw village tract burnt down seven hill farms. This had especially negative consequences as the trees were burnt in the year in which the trees on the hill farms were supposed to be cut down, according to the traditional cycle of forestry management which is practiced by local villagers. The seven hill farms were owned by villagers in K--- village in Pla Hkoh village tract and Yeh Muh Plaw village tract. The Tatmadaw interrupted the cycle of cultivating hill farms and many villagers were unable to continue their cultivating. The villagers believe that the destruction of their hill farms was a deliberate attempt to harm villagers’ livelihoods. After this incident, only a few of the owners were able to cultivate some parts of their hill farms. Saw J--- reported, “The Tatmadaw troops saw that we had put up a sign on which we wrote, “Do not burn the forest,” but they did not respect the sign. Therefore, seven hill farms were burnt when they set fire to the forest.”
Militarisation in Lu Thaw Township is one of the main barriers preventing the safe return and reintegration of IDPs and refugees to their original working areas and villages. Not only has the presence of landmines and a high number of Tatmadaw camps increased local community members’ safety and security concerns but they also face significant livelihood challenges due to Tatmadaw actions such as the burning of villagers’ hill farms. An additional challenge for potentially repatriated refugees regarding militarisation is that they may lack up to date information in their original villages such as the location of landmines and the presence of the Tatmadaw.
Nevertheless, IDPs and villagers in Lu Thaw Township actively use both formal and informal strategies to claim their rights and resist militarisation on their land. Formal strategies include non-violent protests urging the Tatmadaw to withdraw their army camps from villagers’ original work places and homes. These strategies are not used regularly for many potential reasons, such as the risk for protestors. Due to these challenges, IDPs also use informal strategies such as putting up signs in the hill forest, warning the Tatmadaw to not burn the forest and respect their livelihoods. Although this is not organised, these informal strategies are one of the many types of agency local communities regularly use to contest the Tatmadaw and the militarisation of their working areas and villages.
But visibly, even though the IDPs in Lu Thaw Township actively use both formal and informal strategies to claim their rights and resist militarisation on their land, they have not been able immediately achieve their objectives, as the Tatmadaw have increased their activity in Lu Thaw Township and have reinforced their presence. This negative reaction from the Tatmadaw is deeply concerning because it may indicate to IDPs that the Tatmadaw do not recognise the legitimacy of their safety and livelihood concerns and therefore significantly decreases IDPs’ trust in the NCA.