Foundation of Fear: 25 years of villagers' voices from southeast Myanmar


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Foundation of Fear: 25 years of villagers' voices from southeast Myanmar

Published date:
Monday, October 30, 2017

KHRG presents 'Foundation of Fear: 25 years of villagers' voices from southeast Myanmar', an extensive review of 25 years of KHRG documentation on militarisation, human rights abuses and village agency.

Executive Summary and Introduction

“During the conflict period and before the [2012] preliminary ceasefire had taken place, many civilians and leaders died. Many villagers fled to refugee camps and to other countries because of the war. We recommend both governments open more livelihood opportunities for the villagers. We recommend both the KNU and Myanmar government build trust between each other and do not break their promises. We do not want to see human rights abuses happen in our grand-children’s generation.”

Saw CJ--- (male, 24), Ck--- village, Shwegyin Township, Nyaunglebin District/ eastern Bago Region (interviewed in November 2016)

KHRG presents ‘Foundation of Fear’, an extensive 25 years review, with the intention of amplifying the voices of rural communities in southeast Myanmar and making their perspectives central to understand the human rights abuses that they have lived through. It shows how decades of abuse which remain unresolved and in some cases unacknowledged deeply affect the prospect of sustainable and genuine peace throughout Myanmar as a whole. The rationale of this report is therefore not only to ask ‘what has changed?’ over KHRG’s 25 years, but also to project villagers’ recommendations for ‘what still needs to change’ in order to build an environment in southeast Myanmar in support of villagers’ rights and in support of their un-met needs for security, peace and justice. Therefore, the testimonies presented here of ‘what has come before’ must form the necessary foundation for understanding ‘what must come next’ for Myanmar on its path to peace. Only by raising these difficult questions can we prevent human rights abuses from being forgotten, silenced and, crucially, from continuing and being repeated. 

To make this possible, KHRG has taken a significant sample of the thousands of reports we have produced during this 25 years time period. The eventual report therefore is taken from an initial analysis of 944 KHRG reports and draws directly on 489 KHRG documents: 312 published reports and 177 unpublished reports including, 114 interviews, 116 situation updates and 106 photo notes and photo sets collected consistently between November 1992 and March 2017. Through villagers’ voices this report therefore grounds present day human rights abuses that are of particular concern for villagers in southeast Myanmar, ranging from development to discrimination, and from militarisation to refugee return, within a context of a quarter of a century of human rights abuses. Throughout the chapters presented here, ‘Foundation of Fear’ emphasises how powerful actors continue to violate villagers’ rights while uncovering concerning trends where the history of violent abuse, ethnic discrimination and neglect of basic services for rural communities in southeast Myanmar continues to repeat itself. These trends have created a legacy of abuses that has only been exacerbated by the impunity of Myanmar’s most powerful actors for the deliberate, systematic, interlinked abuses against Karen and other communities evidenced here. In revisiting the perspectives and abuses reported over 25 years, ‘Foundation of Fear’ offers direct insights into villagers’ current experiences and perceptions on the ground, including the holistic nature of abuses which have culminated in communities being broken, countless families choosing to displace themselves from southeast Myanmar, and the multitude of impacts that these abuses have, from disease to debt, and from a lack of education and livelihood opportunities to persistent fears of the military and distrust of the government. 

Of equal importance, this report exposes new areas following the 2012 preliminary ceasefire era, in which villagers’ rights are at risk of being exploited, such as by private companies in the development sector, through financial demands made on villagers by armed groups, and by the premature return of refugees and internally displaced persons from camps. In doing so, it further highlights villagers’ agency strategies and their successes and barriers in accessing justice, recognising that at no point throughout KHRG’s reporting period have villagers been passive recipients of abuse but have actively sought ways to avoid, confront or mitigate abuses and their impacts. 

With all points considered, this report evidences the many ways that a climate of fear, insecurity and abuse which generations of villagers in southeast Myanmar have lived through has yet to end, and how considerable challenges persist, resulting in significant implications for villagers’ perceptions of the Myanmar government, Tatmadaw and the stability of the current peace process. 

This report is essential for stakeholders in southeast Myanmar to develop a fuller awareness of the historical context in which they are active, and to consider their responsibility towards what still needs to change to end ongoing violations of human rights in southeast Myanmar. Furthermore, this report will be insightful as it assesses the history of division, discrimination and human rights abuse of Myanmar's ethnic and religious minorities, which still holds significant influence across the region. Stakeholders with specific responsibility in addressing what still needs to change are identified in KHRG’s Recommendations, including the Myanmar government, the Karen National Union, development actors in southeast Myanmar, Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups. As the peace process moves ahead, now it is imperative for all relevant stakeholders to address the historic foundation of abuse and the continuing rights abuses committed by Myanmar’s most powerful actors against minority groups.

Structure of the report 

Section 1: ‘Introduction’ provides an overview of the report. Following this Executive Summary and Introduction, sections on Recommendations and Detailed Findings are presented with the aim of clearly summarising villagers’ concerns and recommending steps towards ensuring that their concerns are addressed. Background Context provides essential information to the reader regarding the history of conflict in southeast Myanmar and the biography of key actors throughout the conflict. Methodology provides information on KHRG’s verification methods in the collection and analysis of the data used for the report. 

Section 2: ‘Chapters’ includes 9 detailed chapters presenting information on carefully selected topics representative of villagers’ concerns, experiences and agency strategies drawn from 25 years of KHRG reporting. 

Chapter 1: ‘Militarisation’, presents 25 years of militarisation and abuse in southeast Myanmar, including forced labour; forced recruitment; landmines; and deliberate attacks on villages and civilians. It analyses how the militarised context of southeast Myanmar continues to generate insecurity for community members, finding that villagers live with a continued fear of the re-escalation of conflict and military abuse. Chapter 1 also analyses the impacts of these abuses and agency strategies that villagers employ to mitigate and respond under these circumstances, uncovering how severe livelihood restrictions continue to be felt by villagers in southeast Myanmar due to the presence of armed actors and ongoing landmine contamination, and how physical and psycho- social impacts continue to affect villagers even after military abuses diminish. Furthermore, the impacts section shows the deep rift between Karen communities and Tatmadaw, and the insecurity and fear that continued militarisation generates due to the lack of trust that exists amongst communities for Tatmadaw and, by association, the Myanmar government. Chapter 1 concludes that the risk of abuse for communities in southeast Myanmar continues to be closely tied to militarisation.

Chapter 2: ‘Violent Abuse, Threats, Gender-based Violence, Torture and Killing’, covers serious human rights violations of violent and explicit threats, gender-based violence, torture and extrajudicial killing. It presents villagers’ experiences of this extreme violence during conflict and how these have evolved since the preliminary ceasefire. It highlights how between 1992 and 2012 violent abuse was used by armed actors, namely Tatmadaw, to break Karen communities through the use of explicit threats forcing villagers to flee, the rape of local women, public torture, violent indiscriminate killings and other means. When analysing abuses during conflict, this chapter outlines the legacy that this violence continues to have on villagers, with many villagers unable and unwilling to trust or forgive the Tatmadaw and Myanmar government. This chapter considers how reports received following the 2012 preliminary ceasefire suggest that violent abuse is no longer a Tatmadaw or ethnic armed group tactic but, due to the culture of impunity for armed actors, continues to be used by some armed actors to instil fear in villagers and to punish them. As well, this chapter highlights how violent abuse is now being used to a lesser extent but by a wider variety of actors, which, alongside additional armed groups, also includes the Myanmar police, Myanmar government and private companies. Following the analysis of violent abuse in southeast Myanmar, this chapter examines the impacts of the violence, which include fear, physical impairments, limitations on livelihood and a breakdown of families and communities. Chapter 2 then highlights the agency of villagers in avoiding further violent abuse by armed actors over 25 years, and finds that the impunity and lack of accountability of armed actors who commit violent abuse against villagers is a significant barrier in both accessing justice and preventing further abuse. 

Chapter 3: ‘Education’, presents villagers’ experience of disrupted education under conflict, and shows that whilst villagers’ experience of education has improved in recent years there are still significant challenges. It considers the impact of conflict on education, including the deliberate destruction of village schools, the continuation of education by displaced villagers with minimal means, and the relationship between attacks on Karen education systems and attacks on Karen identity and culture. In doing so, it presents the importance of a culturally-appropriate education for ethnic minority students in southeast Myanmar, and details current concerns with regard to Myanmar government curriculum, funding and staffing in schools in southeast Myanmar. This chapter also considers additional barriers to accessing education, including both physical distance and monetary commitments. It further presents village agency strategies over 25 years to provide education in communities despite challenging conditions including the establishment of locally-funded self-reliant schools, and shows that villagers consistently rate education to be of high priority but remain unsatisfied with the current Myanmar government’s approach.

Chapter 4: ‘Health’, considers the improvements and remaining challenges in the health sector for villagers in recent years, and presents villager testimony on their experience of barriers to achieving full health during the conflict era. Chapter 4 details villagers extensive concerns with regard to access to healthcare, including the continued lack of investment in rural areas leading to a lack of clinics and trained healthcare workers, and poor infrastructure limiting both villagers’ and health workers’ ability to travel for medical purposes. It considers this in the context whereby Tatmadaw actively destroyed village clinics in both the 1990s and 2000s, prohibited villagers from travelling to reach clinics, and aggressively prohibited medical supplies from reaching villages. It finds that these restrictions have resulted in more deaths from disease, malnutrition and sickness than direct attacks and violent abuses, particularly for displaced villagers without formal access to healthcare. Chapter 4 further considers additional barriers in accessing healthcare which have persisted over 25 years, including financial and livelihood instability, with many villagers describing the costs of healthcare as unaffordable, and the impacts of additional abuses including forced labour, forced portering, theft and looting, landmines and torture on their health. This chapter goes on to analyse the concerns of villagers that when healthcare is and has been made available, the quality has been unacceptability low, including a lack of medical supplies in clinics and inadequate skills of healthcare staff, leading to an ongoing reliance on traditional healers and medicine in rural areas and leaving villagers at continued risk of serious disease, sickness and premature mortality. 

Chapter 5: ‘Looting, Extortion and Arbitrary Taxation’, details villagers’ experiences of these three targeted abuses by armed actors over the past 25 years, and the serious impact that they have had on the financial survival of villagers. It describes how the financial impacts and abuses of the conflict created significant fear and livelihood problems for villagers, and acted as a significant reason for displacement by many villagers in southeast Myanmar. It further details how current financial demands on villagers, predominately through arbitrary taxation, continue to leave them financially insecure, and the lack of information and transparency in the taxation system of the Myanmar government, KNU and ethnic armed groups, leads villagers now to have resistance to paying tax. Chapter 5 also describes how the lack of transparency with taxation is exploited by authority figures and used to extort additional finances from villagers, particularly at checkpoints. Furthermore, it identifies that the responsibility for ending arbitrary taxation lies with the Myanmar government and the KNU, and finds that the lack of benefits to villagers, such as adequate education and healthcare, means that the majority of taxes in southeast Myanmar are viewed as arbitrary. After careful analysis of examples of looting, extortion and arbitrary taxation, this chapter discusses the agency that villagers use to mitigate the impacts that these abuses have on their financial survival, which include avoidance of armed actors, negotiation of taxation costs, and demands of taxation receipts. This chapter show that villagers actively seek to prosper in southeast Myanmar, but continue to face violations against their financial stability and survival.

Chapter 6: ‘Development’, presents villagers experiences with development projects and how development has changed from a militarisation project led by the Tatmadaw to now include a diversity of projects by the Myanmar government, companies, CBOs and INGOs. It highlights villagers’ perspectives on the role that development projects play in their communities and the human rights abuses that development projects often bring. This chapter looks in detail at villagers’ experience with the Myanmar government development projects, private companies and recent CBO and INGO development projects, emphasising the need for consultation and inclusive development practices. Chapter 6 also presents cases of grave human rights abuses committed by Tatmadaw and Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA Buddhist) in the name of development, including forced labour and forced relocation, and shows how this has improved under the peace process and new Myanmar government leadership. It goes on to analyse villagers’ concerns in regard to the recent influx of private companies initiating large-scale development projects often in collaboration with armed actors, presenting evidence to show that development conducted by private actors is now the most abusive against villagers and their rights. Comparative to other development actors, development by private companies now elicits the most villager complaints and results in significant barriers preventing affected villagers from accessing justice. 

Chapter 7: ‘Displacement and Return’, presents villagers’ experience of displacement throughout 25 years of KHRG reporting, and contextualises these experiences within displaced villagers’ current apprehensions about return. The chapter details that many displaced villagers do not feel their safety and dignity can be guaranteed in their return within Myanmar. Many IDPs and refugees harbour a fear of return due to the presence of armed actors in areas of potential return, the continued risk from fighting, and political instability. Displaced villagers also report not having access to information in regard to livelihood opportunities and personal security should they choose to return. Furthermore, this chapter demonstrates how IDPs and refugees are concerned with how their return is planned and by whom, and ultimately want to be involved in the decision-making that will have direct implications for their futures in Myanmar.

Chapter 8: ‘Discrimination and Division’, considers the experience of minority ethnic, religious and cultural groups in southeast Myanmar throughout KHRG’s 25 years. Villagers’ voices here emphasise common abuses including land confiscation and forced relocation, the violent destruction of churches and mosques by the DKBA (Buddhist) and Tatmadaw, the forced building of Buddhist pagodas on minority religious groups’ land, the denial of freedom of worship, the forced adoption of Buddhist practice for Christians, and violent discriminatory threats made by powerful actors based on religion and ethnicity. Chapter 8 further exposes how Muslim communities in southeast Myanmar face continued discrimination particularly with regard to the denial of Citizenship Scrutiny Cards and how this impacts their access to rights including education, healthcare and freedom of movement. It finds that discrimination is evident not only in abuses but also in the actions of authority figures when ethnic and religious minorities in southeast Myanmar have sought to access justice following abuse. Chapter 8 analyses the impact of discrimination, considering it to be a significant factor not only in the majority of abuses throughout KHRG’s 25 years reporting period, but in prompting the displacement of minority communities from southeast Myanmar, encouraging  the separation  of  communities and undermining  the potential for peaceful co-existence between groups. 

Chapter 9: ‘Perspectives on Peace’, assesses how villagers’ experiences of the abuses analysed in the preceding eight chapters affect current prospects for sustainable and long-term peace, most specifically their attitude toward the current peace process. This chapter describes the diversity of villagers’ opinions ranging from hopeful to hesitant, with many villagers remarking that significant improvements in community security must be made before they feel that they genuinely live in peace-time. It highlights potential downfalls in the peace process, including continued fighting in ethnic areas and militarisation activities by Tatmadaw which villagers perceive to be a preparation for a re-escalation of conflict. These actions do little to build the necessary foundation of trust between villagers and Tatmadaw and the Myanmar government. Villagers’ voices suggest that they will build more faith in the peace process, once they perceive more security improvements occurring in their home communities. Additionally, this chapter finds that a lack of transparency with regard to the process itself, a lack of meaningful participation by community members, and ongoing livelihood insecurities due to the presence of both military and development actors, leads villagers in southeast Myanmar to be seriously hesitant to announce the peace process as either a success or a benefit. 

Section 3: ‘Appendix’ includes all unpublished KHRG data that has been referenced in ‘Foundation of Fear’.1 This is to ensure that the perspectives and information presented in this report are verifiable and transparent. Where published, full KHRG report titles with hyperlinks have been provided in footnote form throughout the report and are available at

Detailed findings

Chapter 1: Militarisation

1.         Throughout KHRG’s 25 years of reporting, militarisation and human rights violations mainly by Tatmadaw, DKBA (Buddhist), the majority of whom later transformed into Tatmadaw’s Border Guard Forces (BGFs), has deliberately harmed and systematically targeted civilians through tactics including forced labour, forced recruitment, landmines and deliberate attacks on villages.

2.         Continued militarisation and the presence of Tatmadaw and BGFs in communities in southeast Myanmar results in an environment where villagers fear for their safety and security and it leads to the continuation of forced recruitment of adults, forced labour, deliberate attacks on villages and landmine contamination.

3.         A significant impact of militarisation and human rights violations is that villagers’ trust in Tatmadaw and, by association, the Myanmar government remains low due to the history of abuses perpetrated by Tatmadaw, including BGFs. An additional impact over 25 years has been severe livelihood struggles for villagers.

4.         Villagers have employed agency tactics including direct negotiation with perpetrators, deliberate avoidance of Tatmadaw, BGFs and DKBA (Buddhist and Benevolent) and strategic displacement to avoid human rights violations. Villagers have also sought recourse through local government authorities and the justice system, but state that significant barriers including fear of retaliation prevent them accessing justice in cases of human rights violations. 

Chapter 2: Violent Abuse: Threats, Gender-Based Violence, Torture and Killing 

1.         Since the preliminary ceasefire, extrajudicial killings and torture by the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs, have decreased considerably. However, the legacy of these killings and torture means that villagers continue to feel unsafe in their presence. Moreover, violent threats continue to be used to advance the interests of Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs, as well as the Myanmar government and private companies. These threats are frequently of a serious and violent nature, which means that community members are often fearful of retaliation if they report the abuse, which deprives them of access to justice.

2.         Gender-based violence (GBV) is a common abuse that has not directly declined since the decline in conflict. Women continue to report feeling insecure in their own communities, which is in part because of the use of GBV as a military tactic during the conflict, as well as the ongoing violence perpetrated by other community members. Women also report a lack of justice, as frequently the abuse is not investigated fully or the perpetrator is not given an appropriate punishment.

3.         Torture is sporadically used as a means of punishment and interrogation by the Myanmar police, Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs, which have led to reports of miscarriages of justice.

4.         The lack of access to the justice system and weak implementation of the rule of law results in cases of violent abuse remaining unpunished and leaving victims without justice or feelings of closure. 

Chapter 3: Education 

1.         Over 25 years, human rights abuses and the consequences of the conflict including displacement and restrictions on freedom of movement severely have hindered villagers’ access to and quality of education in southeast Myanmar. Despite the recent ceasefire agreements and increased expenditures by the Myanmar government to increase access to education among all of its citizens, children in southeast Myanmar still lack access to affordable, high quality schools within a safe physical distance from where they live.

2.         Financial barriers and livelihood struggles have acted as impediments to villagers accessing education over 25 years. Free and compulsory primary education is not accessible to all children in southeast Myanmar due to both upfront and hidden costs in the education sector.

During conflict, financial demands were often made on villagers separate to education, which affected the extent to which they could pay for schooling. Middle and high school education is particularly hard to access as there are less schools and the fees are higher. These costs create a heavy financial burden for villagers, many of whom are already experiencing livelihood and food security issues.

3.         The teaching of minority ethnic languages remains a priority for villagers. Since 2014, Karen language and culture have been allowed to be taught in the Myanmar government schools, although often only after school hours and if self-funded by villagers. Villagers’ testimony highlights the importance of teaching Karen history, literature, and language within schools for their cultural identity. During conflict, Tatmadaw explicitly targeted Karen education schools; schools were forcibly closed or converted to a state-sanctioned curriculum.

4.         Due to the unresolved legacy of the conflict and their poor experience with Myanmar government schools, many villagers in southeast Myanmar mistrust the Myanmar government, and by association Myanmar government teachers. In addition to not trusting their staff, villagers also question the commitment and quality of education being provided by these teachers. 

Chapter 4: Health

1.         Access to healthcare has been a significant concern throughout 25 years of KHRG reporting. Access to healthcare for villagers has been deliberately denied through Tatmadaw’s imposed restrictions on freedom of movement and the trading of medical supplies in the 1990s and 2000s. Since the 2012 ceasefire, barriers in accessing healthcare have changed from conflict-related to infrastructure-dependent, including the lack of adequate roads to rural areas, and the lack of functioning healthcare facilities in rural areas.

2.         Displaced villagers suffer disproportionately from a lack of access to healthcare and medical supplies when in hiding. Due to severe restrictions on villagers’ movement, sickness, malnutrition and disease are estimated to have killed more people throughout the conflict than the direct violent abuses of Tatmadaw and EAGs.

3.         When healthcare facilities are available and accessible, patients report that they are frequently understaffed, lack essential medical supplies, and operate unreliable opening hours. Additionally, villagers have raised complaints about the acceptability of healthcare standards, particularly those made recently available since the 2012 ceasefire. They have experienced disrespectful healthcare staff, lack of information on the side effects of medicine prescribed, and arbitrary denial of treatment.

4.         The standard of healthcare services, when made available, has been consistently low throughout 25 years of KHRG reports, particularly in rural areas of southeast Myanmar. Villagers have relied on traditional medics and traditional medicines, most especially during conflict and when in hiding, but this dependence continues in areas which are not served by permanent healthcare staff and in areas where medical supplies are not available.

5.         Significant financial barriers persist with regard to free and equal access to healthcare. The financial consequences of human rights violations by the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs, including financial extortion and a lack of time for villagers to work for their own livelihoods, left many villagers financially insecure and unable to pay for basic medicines. Whilst the human rights situation has improved, villagers report that they continue to find healthcare inaccessible due to financial barriers including the cost of travel to hospitals, the cost of medicine, and the unwillingness of some healthcare staff to treat poorer patients.

Chapter 5: Looting, Extortion and Arbitrary Taxation 

1.         Villagers report that taxes remain unclear and arbitrary, and that they are often taxed by multiple actors, including the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs. They state that often the tax is not proportionate to their income and therefore brings additional financial burdens. Furthermore, villagers continue to mistrust the Myanmar government tax system due to excessive taxes and extortion levied on them throughout the conflict by the Tatmadaw and BGFs.

2.         The persistent presence of armed checkpoints is a significant restriction on villagers’ trade, freedom of movement, access to basic goods and ability to make income, and the checkpoints are often run by multiple actors, including the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs. Furthermore the presence of armed checkpoints increases villagers’ exposure to the risk of additional human rights violations including threats, arbitrary arrest, violent abuse and arbitrary detention.

3.         Prior to the 2012 ceasefire, looting and extortion, committed most commonly by Tatmadaw, acted as direct attacks on villagers livelihoods. Looting and extortion, when combined with additional abuses in armed conflict, resulted in many villagers strategically choosing to displace themselves.

4.         Extortion, while less frequent since the 2012 ceasefire, acts as a barrier for villagers to access justice, especially when it is imposed by powerful actors including Myanmar Police, Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs. 

Chapter 6: Development

1.         Since the ceasefires have been in place and the armed conflict reduced, the Tatmadaw has decreased its use of violence to confiscate villagers’ land for development projects, and has largely stopped demanding villagers as forced labourers for large-scale infrastructure projects. However, villagers are increasingly facing non-violent development-related rights violations such as land confiscations and damage to lands, which results in severe livelihood consequences such as food insecurities, employment loss, and financial and emotional damages from losing their land and means of survival.

2.         Villagers most frequently voice their complaints about private companies’ development projects that are conducted with the support of the Tatmadaw, BGFs, and EAGs. Villagers are often not consulted prior to the implementation of the development projects, and fair compensation for lost lands, property and livelihoods is almost never given. Villagers risk facing legal battles from private companies when reclaiming their land in addition to their attempts at claiming fair compensation for land confiscations committed by the Tatmadaw, BGFs, and private companies during the time the military regime was in power.

3.         Villagers’ agency strategies to contest development-project related abuses have expanded and diversified alongside the political changes in Myanmar and include sending complaint letters, engaging in negotiations, direct protest, demanding compensation and forming committees, whereas under the military regime these strategies were mostly impossible as they led to arbitrary arrest, torture and other abuse.

4.         In development projects involving many actors, the government, Tatmadaw, BGFs, EAGs, and private companies use collaboration as a strategy to evade responsibility for human rights violations, which impedes villagers’ ability to seek justice. Villagers report that private companies are often owned by former commanders in the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs. Furthermore, private companies often receive support from Myanmar police, Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs to carry out their unlawful activities leading to human rights violations against villagers.

5.         In recent years EAGs, international and local NGOs and other humanitarian and development actors have been diversifying their projects in southeast Myanmar, especially in rural areas which are hard or impossible to reach for the Myanmar government. They have expanded their activities beyond humanitarian aid to include livelihood trainings, water and electricity provision, supporting the construction of schools and clinics, and dispersing health information. In many cases, these actors receive permission and consult with villagers prior to the start of their projects. When complaints do surface, it is usually because of weak communication between them and the villagers and not integrating villagers’ stated needs. 

Chapter 7: Displacement and Return

1.         Displacement has been a common agency tactic employed by tens of thousands of villagers throughout KHRG’s 25 years to avoid ongoing abuse and the risk of armed conflict between the Tatmadaw, BGFs and EAGs active in southeast Myanmar. 

2.         IDPs’ and refugees’ main concerns to return to southeast Myanmar are their safety, access to land and services, and how their return is decided. Many express a willingness to return, as long as their safety and access to land and services can be guaranteed, and only if they can participate in the decision-making processes of return.

3.         IDPs and refugees currently perceive that their safety cannot be guaranteed if they return. They still fear their safety is threatened due to continued fighting in southeast Myanmar, political instability, and the risk of abuse by Tatmadaw, BGFs and some EAGs. Some IDPs and refugees state they are willing to return if Tatmadaw and BGF camps move away from their villages of origin, and if they have access to business and livelihood opportunities in their return locations.

4.         Returning villagers want access to land in order to sustain their livelihoods and to build their lives in Myanmar. They specifically want their former lands to be returned to them that have been confiscated by companies, the Myanmar government, Tatmadaw, BGFs and neighbours in their absence. In case return of their land is not possible, displaced villagers want compensation and replacement land in order to rebuild their lives.

5.         The Myanmar government, while having committed to villagers’ restitution rights in the National Land Use Policy, which includes following international best practice, such as the Pinheiro Principles, is not adequately following this policy to ensure displaced villagers can return voluntarily, with safety and dignity.

6.         KHRG reports indicate the Myanmar government, and other actors including INGOs, CBOs and armed groups, are preparing housing for IDP and refugee return, yet evidence of adequate land restoration is not present in KHRG reports. 

Chapter 8: Discrimination and Division 

1.         Religious minorities, namely Muslims and Christians, have faced religious discrimination including through the destruction of their religious buildings and holy books, forced displacement and relocation to Buddhist areas, threats to force them to practice Buddhism and threats to prevent them from attending their sites of worship. The main perpetrators of these attacks on religious freedom have been Tatmadaw and DKBA (Buddhist) most of whom later transformed into BGFs.

2.         Reports of discrimination against the minority Christian Karen community have lessened but not ceased, with the main offence being the construction of Buddhist pagodas by local Buddhist organisations on or near places of Christian worship, sometimes with the help of EAGs.

3.         Muslim communities in southeast Myanmar report discrimination through the repeated denial of citizenship throughout 25 years of KHRG reports. The denial of citizenship results in restrictions on Muslims’ freedom of movement, the right to vote, access to health and education services, exposes them to financial insecurity, and effectively renders Muslims stateless. Muslim communities recognise that the denial of citizenship is not due to administrative challenges but due to discrimination by Myanmar government officials who refuse to recognise some Muslims as Myanmar nationals.

4.         Ethnic minorities report facing discrimination when reporting cases to Myanmar police and local authorities, including being exposed to threats, perceiving that their case has not been taken seriously due to their ethnicity or religion, and fearing retaliation after reporting abuse or discrimination. 

Chapter 9: Perspectives on Peace 

1.         The majority of villagers in southeast Myanmar report that they have low confidence in the peace process, with their greatest concern being that the ceasefire will be broken and there will be a return to fighting. Villagers state that ongoing military activities including the strengthening of Tatmadaw and BGF army camps near civilian areas, troop rotations and military trainings has led them to question the integrity of the ceasefire. 

2.         Many villagers expected the withdrawal of Tatmadaw and BGF army bases from civilian areas following the signing of the ceasefires, but have conversely witnessed the strengthening of some of these bases.

3.         Some community members feel that the peace process lacked transparency and that the expected outcomes at a local level have not been made clear to them, making it difficult for them to make informed decisions about whether their area is now safe.

4.         Some villagers reported positive developments since the peace process including less fighting, greater freedom of movement, new schools, clinics and NGOs coming to be active in the area, and a reduction in extortion and arbitrary taxation. 


These recommendations are derived from KHRG field research, informal interviews with key informants, and input from both KHRG field and advocacy staff. They are grouped as much as possible in line with the structure of the report. Some of the recommendations cover multiple issues and are therefore grouped under new headings.

Peace, Security & Safety 

•           All signatories to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are obligated to honour all parts of the agreement, especially concerning the protection of civilians, and non-signatories should consider holding peaceful negotiations and signing existing or alternative peace agreements.

•           The Myanmar Government and the Karen National Union (KNU) should improve access to relevant information about the ceasefires and peace process for civilians in southeast Myanmar, and create opportunities for meaningful and gender-inclusive participation throughout the peace process.

•           To ensure civilians’ safety and security and increase the level of trust for a genuine peace, armed actors – especially the Tatmadaw and Border Guard Forces (BGF) – need to demilitarise areas close to villages and farms by removing troops and camps, and cease military trainings, patrols and military transports through, in or near villages or livelihood areas and immediately end the practice of land confiscations for military purposes.

•           The Myanmar Government, Tatmadaw, BGF and ethnic armed groups (EAGs) must agree to and enforce a comprehensive ban on the new use of landmines and ensure that all existing landmine areas are clearly marked and villagers are informed for their safety. Before any actor starts systematic demining efforts, meaningful consultations must be held with relevant stakeholders, including local communities, as demining without consultation in conflict-sensitive areas could lead to further conflict. Moreover, removal of landmines, unexploded ordnance (UXO) and other remnants of war should only be conducted by trained and equipped professionals.

Accountability, Transparency & Justice 

•           The Myanmar Government and Tatmadaw must ensure that all armed actors under their control comply with their responsibilities under domestic and international humanitarian and human rights law and end impunity by ensuring that any armed actor who has violated the rights of any person is held accountable for abuses in fair and transparent investigations and judicial processes in independent and impartial civilian courts.

•           The Myanmar Government and the KNU must ensure that villagers who have faced human rights violations have access to justice by establishing or improving transparent and effective mechanisms to receive complaints from villagers regarding violations of their rights. They must also ensure follow-up on the recommendations and conclusions of these mechanisms.

•           The Myanmar Government, Tatmadaw, Border Guard Forces and ethnic armed groups must guarantee that civilians who report violations of their rights are protected from retaliation.

•           The Myanmar Government and the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission should give trainings or seek external training opportunities by the United Nations or non-governmental organisations, to build the awareness of Tatmadaw, BGFs and other officials, including the lower ranks, on human rights, women’s rights and humanitarian law.

Displacement & Return 

•           The Myanmar Government, countries of asylum, UNHCR and other humanitarian actors must ensure that IDP and refugee return is genuinely voluntary, without direct or indirect coercion, safe, sustainable and with full respect for the dignity of the returnees. Reducing rations and funding to the camps can be considered a form of coercion and the resulting returns cannot be considered genuinely voluntary.

•           Return of IDPs and refugees should not be initiated by the Myanmar Government, countries of asylum, the UNHCR or other actors but only by the IDPs and refugees themselves. When the situation arises where voluntary, safe and sustainable returns are possible, it should be a participatory process in which IDPs, refugees and host communities are involved in monitoring the safety and conditions of their potential voluntary return.

•           All governments and stakeholders involved in potential IDP and refugee returns must ensure personal and livelihood security for those who chose to return, including by returning confiscated land to displaced villagers and when that is not possible provide free housing for returning IDPs and refugees and compensating them fairly for their losses.

•           In case of new displacement caused by continuing internal conflict, the Myanmar Government, Tatmadaw, BGFs, KNU and EAGs must ensure the safety of civilians and adequate humanitarian aid, including by allowing humanitarian actors access to displacement sites.


•           The Myanmar Government should prioritise improving the protection of villagers’ land through implementing laws and policies which protect existing land use practices and tenure rights, and acknowledge that local communities  may  recognise land  titles granted  by multiple sources, including customary and local administrations such as the KNU. In cases where villagers wish to secure land titles from the Myanmar Government or the KNU, a transparent and inclusive process should be available for villagers to do so.

•           The Myanmar Government and KNU should reform current land and investment laws and policies to prevent companies and other actors from legally confiscating villagers’ land and to protect villagers’ from being sued for tending to their land. This includes the responsibility to refuse permission to companies operating in southeast Myanmar in cases where villagers’ land may be at risk, particularly the land of vulnerable communities including refugees and IDPs who may plan to return to that land.

•           The Myanmar Government, the KNU, companies and development actors must carry out meaningful human rights, environmental and other relevant impact assessments prior to project implementation and give communities the opportunity to participate in decisions regarding size, scope, compensation, and means of project implementation, with full public disclosure of all information in relevant local languages relating to how the projects could affect their lands and livelihoods in  clear and  understandable terms. When proposed projects affect rural villagers, the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) must be respected at all times.

•           The Myanmar Government and Tatmadaw are responsible to return confiscated lands to the original owners, even in cases where there has never been a formal land title due to customary land usage. Alternatively, in cases where it is impossible to return the land, adequate compensation should be agreed on by both parties, without coercion, to cover the replacement costs of buying new land, in addition to increased livelihood costs due to upheaval.

•           The Myanmar Government should ensure that access to domestic complaint and adjudication bodies is available to all, and that land dispute mechanisms are community based, participatory, effective and established according to customary practices. 


•           The Myanmar Government and KNU should address livelihood concerns of local communities affected by land confiscations, landmines, displacement and human rights abuses, in supporting them with education, counselling, healthcare, social security programs and development which supports traditional and sustainable livelihoods. 

•           Humanitarian and development actors should support and prioritise community development projects and services in marginalised communities, remote areas and for villagers facing significant livelihood struggles.

Discrimination and Division 

•           All people should be able to practice their religion freely, and should be allowed to build places of worship such as churches, temples, pagodas, mosques and animist shrines, without infringing on the religious freedoms of others. The Myanmar Government, especially the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture, EAGs and local religious organisations should ensure that the integrity of existing religious buildings and places of worship is protected and in case of planned construction of new religious buildings, local communities are consulted, as to not aggravate tensions between communities. In case of disputes between religious groups, peaceful negotiations should be facilitated to achieve interfaith harmony.

•           The Myanmar Government must ensure their laws and policies with regard to citizenship and provision of national identification cards are non-discriminatory and in line with international human rights standards, especially with regard to some Muslim communities who are not recognised as one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar and therefore effectively stateless. For returning IDPs and refugees the Myanmar Government should provide proof of identity including birth certificates and household registration to ensure they get full access to social, health and education services as citizens and without discrimination.

•           The Myanmar Government, KNU and local and community based organisations should undertake awareness raising activities to promote religious and cultural freedom for all people and promote tolerance of other religions and cultures as a way to prevent tensions and violence from occurring.


•           The Myanmar Ministry of Health, supported by humanitarian and development actors working on healthcare, should make sure that health interventions are implemented through discussion and collaboration with local communities, Karen Department of Health and Welfare (KDHW) and community-based healthcare providers, to ensure the effective implementation of culturally appropriate and non-discriminatory health services. Before villagers are given treatment, any diagnoses, treatment plans, and medicines should be fully explained by health workers in a language the patient fully understands.

•           The Myanmar Government and humanitarian and development actors should continue to increase funding to healthcare, especially maternal and antimalarial healthcare, including to KDHW and community-based healthcare providers, particularly in rural ethnic areas, to ensure that healthcare services and facilities are available and accessible to all villagers in southeast Myanmar. All facilities should be equipped with sufficient medical supplies, essential medicine, and trained staff to effectively deliver high quality and affordable health services.

•           The Myanmar Ministry of Health, KDHW and community-based healthcare providers should ensure that landmine victims and other persons whose health has been severely affected by conflict and abuse have access to free medical care. Humanitarian and development actors should assist in providing funding and building their capacity to ensure free quality healthcare for all victims.


•           The Myanmar Government, especially the Myanmar Ministry of Education, and the Karen Education Department (KED), should ensure free access to primary education and work towards making secondary and upper education progressively free for all children in southeast Myanmar. The Myanmar Ministry of Education, in consultation with local communities, the KED and community-based education providers, should invest in making more middle and high schools available in rural areas and less populated villages, towns, and cities and ensure that all schools in southeast Myanmar are equipped with sufficient funds, resources, and trained teachers who are paid sufficient salaries.

•           The Myanmar Ministry of Education should reform school curricula in consultation and coordination with local communities, the KED and community-based education providers in order to ensure ethnic languages and cultures such as Karen are taught during school hours within Myanmar Government schools in southeast Myanmar.

•           The Myanmar Ministry of Education should recognise the accreditation of diplomas and certificates from the KED and other community-based education providers in refugee/IDP camps, along the Thai-Myanmar border and in areas controlled by ethnic armed groups, to ensure equal access to opportunities for students who have received a non-Myanmar government education.

•           The Myanmar Ministry of Education, the KED and community based education providers should ensure schools mainstream gender equality in their curricula and include human rights education. 

Arbitrary Taxation

•           The Myanmar Government, KNU and EAGs must refrain from arbitrary and illegal taxation practices and ensure that legitimate taxes are proportional so as to not leave villagers in a state of hardship. Furthermore they should ensure that all armed actors under their control do not arbitrarily or illegally tax villagers at checkpoints or elsewhere, intimidate them, use violence or restrict their freedom of movement. Villagers should not pay multiple taxes to multiple groups and the schedules and amounts have to be clearly communicated to villagers beforehand. Tax receipts should always be provided and it is important to inform local communities under what authority the taxes are collected and how it benefits them.

Forced Labour & Arbitrary Demands

•           The Myanmar Government, Tatmadaw, BGF and EAGs must stop all forms of forced labour, including using villagers as human shields, porters, minesweepers, forced recruitment of both adults and children, and forcing them to help construct military camps and other buildings. Moreover, they must refrain from making arbitrary demands from local communities such as demanding the use of their vehicles, boats or other property for military purposes.