Sunday, August 20, 2017

‘Nationwide’ pact turns into disaster

The surge in fighting in northern Shan State in recent weeks has highlighted what a disaster the nationwide ceasefire agreement has been. International organisations who supported it must answer questions about their role, but right now urgent help is required for those suffering the consequences.

Refugees gather at Kanbawza Shan Kyaung Kyee monastery in Kyaukme, northern Shan State, on February 17. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Myanmar TimesRefugees gather at Kanbawza Shan Kyaung Kyee monastery in Kyaukme, northern Shan State, on February 17. Photo: Kaung Htet / The Myanmar Times

Hostilities have broken out between previously cooperating ethnic armed groups – the Ta’Ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) – in the wake of last October’s ceasefire part with the government and the Tatmadaw. While the RCSS signed the agreement, the TNLA was excluded from doing so by the government.

The greatest fears about the NCA have become manifest: Rather than being a step toward peace, the NCA has exacerbated conflict in this country, split ethnic relations and started what has been described as a “new war”.

Organisations that spent large amounts of international cash and pushed for the deal in the face of warnings from key figures, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, bear a responsibility for what is happening to people on the ground now.

At least 5000 people have fled their homes to IDP camps in the past couple of weeks alone, with countless others believed to have sought shelter in the homes of friends and relatives.

Communities are being torn apart, not only by dispersal but by increasing intercommunal tensions between people of Shan and Ta’Ang ethnic backgrounds. Villages have been bereft of young people as they abandon their homes to avoid forced conscription.

Reports of beatings and even executions of civilians, landmine laying, and troops commandeering property and food illustrate further the impact this new conflict is having on the lives of ordinary people.

Men and women are both suffering the consequences of this violence, but women and girls living in IDP camps are at particular risk.

The UN describes IDP women as “one of the most vulnerable groups in the world”.

Displacement poses some very specific threats to girls and women related to immediate living conditions including: increased risk of sexual violence; medical dangers related to reproductive health issues; and nutrition needs of pregnant women and nursing mothers.

A UN Security Council open debate paper from 2014 makes the following observation, which sums up the longer-term impact of displacement.

“Even though each refugee and IDP situation is unique, displacement and statelessness exacerbate existing gender inequalities, amplifying the discrimination and hardship faced by women and girls,” it stated.

“Through a combination of factors, including gender-based discrimination in access to resources, education and employment, poor reproductive health care and exclusion from decision-making processes, refugee and IDP women constitute one of the most vulnerable groups in the world.”

The conflict in northern Shan shows little sign of easing in the near future. This country is already dealing with hundreds of thousands of people still displaced by historic conflicts and renewed fighting after long-term ceasefires broke down in 2011. The very last thing the people of Myanmar needed was for that number to be added to because of a deal designed to give kudos to certain power holders and justify the activities of certain organisations.

But that is what has happened. The very least that those who supported and pushed for the NCA can do is ensure that new IDPs and other people affected by the conflict get as much practical support as possible – not just in terms of basic food and shelter, but also in protecting everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, from further harm.