Background of the Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis in Myanmar

After a decade-long struggle for democracy and nearly half a century of military dictatorship, the country previously known as Burma installed a government that is at least partially civilian in April 2017. After the putsch in 1962, the country, which is rich in resources and used to be more advanced, was run down to one of the poorest in the world by the military. A brutal junta oppressed civilians and destroyed economic, educational and health care systems. Since the countrywide revolt against the military in 1988, Aung San Suu Kyu, who later was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts, has been leading Myanmar’s democratic movement. Its most recent high point was in November 2015 during the first free elections, when the National League for Democracy (NLD) won over 80% of the available seats.

Despite this overwhelming victory, the government’s capabilities remain restricted. The constitution currently secures six of eleven seats in the National Defense and Security Council, three core ministries (border control, defense and internal affairs) as well as the position of vice-president for members of the military and cannot be altered without consent by the generals. In addition, one quarter of all parliamentarian seats are reserved for the military. Thus, the NLD’s hands are tied despite the decade-long civil war having been resolved in the multi-ethnic state of Myanmar. It has no means of controlling the military, which has been oppressing ethnic minorities demanding rights to more autonomy since the end of British colonial rule.

Just as before, military troops are still battling armies of ethnic minority groups in some parts of the country. A countrywide ceasefire agreement signed by the previous government in September 2015 did not bring peace to the people in Myanmar. The conflict in the partially Christian state to the north of Myanmar bordering China and India has gone on since 1961. In 2011, the military broke the ceasefire agreement it had signed with the rebels of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in 1994. Since then, the conflict has been particularly violent.

To-date, 120,000 people have been driven from their villages by the battles in Kachin and now live in refugee camps, often without access to work or education, and without any hope for a better future. They are no longer able to sustain themselves the way they used to. The conflict is deeply engrained in society. Even if peace is achieved one day, true reconciliation between the Kachin minority and the central government will remain a difficult challenge. Looking to the refugee crisis in Europe, local aid organization are worrying international donors will soon desert them. The war has become a sad part of daily life. Without attention through social media, many Kachin believe the conflict will soon be forgotten completely.

Author: Verena Hölz, independent journalist. The text was developed independently from Plan International.