4 July 2014 | Anne-Kathrin Glatz

Myanmar: IDPs in Kachin, Rakhine and the south-east face different challenges, but all need solutions

While Myanmar is proceeding with political and economic reforms and nationwide ceasefire negotiations, conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states is ongoing, and tensions in Rakhine persist. Up to 642,600 internally displaced people (IDPs) in these areas as well as the south-eastern part of the country still need support to rebuild their lives. During a recent mission to the country, IDMC’s Regional Analyst was able to identify some of the key issues that the different groups of IDPs in the country are faced with. These are analysed further in IDMC’s latest report.


Since the ceasefire agreements of 2011 and 2012 between the Government of Myanmar (officially known as the Government of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar) and most ethnic non-state armed groups (NSAGs) operating in the south-east, armed conflict has waned and the lives of people in this area have improved.

In particular, up to 400,000 people internally displaced there can now move around more freely without fearing for their safety, and they are able to pursue a wider variety of job options. As well as this, negotiations over a nationwide ceasefire agreement are in the process, and a second draft was agreed between the government and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT) in May.  

In Kachin state and the northern part of Shan state, however, there have been fresh waves of fighting since 2011 between the Myanmar Armed Forces, also referred to as Tatmadaw, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) as well as with smaller non-state armed groups (NSAGs). Here, a staggering 98,000 people are internally displaced, with many having had to escape again and again as clashes have followed them from one place of refuge to another.

In April, for example, thousands were displaced, and for some of them this was the second or third time they have had to flee since the resumption of fighting in 2011. Two thirds of all IDPs in Kachin and northern Shan are currently in areas controlled by NSAGs that are often remote and isolated, which makes it challenging to get aid to them. Local aid organisations are stretched beyond their capacity, while UN agencies and other international organisations face government restrictions on accessing IDPs in areas outside of government control.

Restricted access for humanitarian organisations has also been a challenge in Rakhine state in the west of the country. Here around 140,000 people, most of them Rohingya Muslims, were forced to flee their homes in 2012 when inter-communal violence flared between the state’s Buddhists and Muslims, and they remain internally displaced to this day. Most of them are staying in camps which they are not allowed to leave. This severely limits their livelihood opportunities and access to education and primary health care. 

In March, support to the displaced in Rakhine state was interrupted after an extremist Buddhist mob attacked the premises and property of international organisations in the town of Sittwe. Those organisations withdrew their staff from the state, but they are now returning and resuming their assistance to the IDPs. Challenges remain, however, as they are only allowed to establish themselves in one designated neighbourhood of Sittwe town, and there is simply not enough space for all organisations whose help is crucially needed. 

The inter-communal violence and displacement in Rakhine state has to be understood against a backdrop of a long history of deprivation and neglect of all of the state’s inhabitants by the central government. In a context of political and socio-economic exclusion, local Buddhists have increasingly targeted their grievances against Rohingya and other Muslims. While Rohingya have lived in Rakhine state’s territory for generations, they are effectively stateless because the Myanmar government sees them as illegal Bangladeshi immigrants, while Bangladesh does not recognise them as Bangladeshis. 

Durable solutions for Myanmar’s IDPs?

While the complexity of each of these situations must not be underestimated, the following elements are key for Myanmar’s IDPs to achieve durable solutions:

  1. In Rakhine state, internally displaced people will only be able to rebuild their lives if a process of reconciliation between Buddhists and Muslims is initiated. Ideally, such a process would be linked to concrete steps to address the needs of all of the state’s inhabitants, particularly in terms of economic development and political representation. This, in turn, would help prevent further tensions, violence and, ultimately, future displacement.
  2. In Kachin and northern Shan, international organisations should be granted unfettered access to IDPs, including those in areas controlled by NSAGs. Only measures taken by both sides will prevent further displacement, and ensure that these areas are included in the nationwide ceasefire agreement currently being developed. Further, the existence of landmines and unexploded ordnance prevents IDPs from going home. These need to be cleared so that they can safely return if they choose to do so. In addition, it is essential that internally displaced people receive the support they need to get their lives back on track.
  3. In the south-eastern part of the country, it is hard to know the exact numbers of internally displaced people in the area because displacement has been going on for a long time and because it is difficult to distinguish IDPs from people who are not displaced. More organisations currently present on the ground should strive to gain a better overview of the numbers of people still facing challenges resulting from their displacement, and of their current situation.
  4. Lastly, in order to facilitate peace-building, it is imperative that the government and the NCCT consult IDPs and enable them to participate more in the ceasefire and peace negotiations so that their needs can be addressed as part of this complex process that is happening in tandem with comprehensive nation- and state-building at this time.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to Myanmar’s different situations of internal displacement – each needs to be analysed and addressed within its own respective context. Only then will the country’s IDPs be able to rebuild their lives in a sustainable way.

For more information on the internal displacement situation in Myanmar, please see IDMC’s latest country overview: Comprehensive solutions needed for recent and long-term IDPs alike

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