It is just an uphill-muddy trail glued to the border with Thailand. But thousands of ethnic Shan call it home since they were evicted at gunpoint from their villages in northeastern Myanmar over two decades ago. And as the war in the country’s ethnic regions flares up and peace talks between the government and non-state armed groups collapse, their protracted displacement is quietly becoming a permanent one.
‘A commander came in the evening and told us to leave the next morning or he would cut our throats,’ recalled Phan La. Since 2000, the 73-year-old man lives in Loi Kaw Wan, the largest of the six Shan IDP camps scattered along Thailand’s northern border, with a third of their combined population of six thousand.
They are some of the 300,000 Shan who fled from the scorched earth campaign carried out by the Burmese army, also known as the Tatmadaw, in central Shan State between 1996 and 1998. Or part of the thousands more displaced the following three years by the 126,000 Wa forcibly resettled in southern Shan State by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group accused by the US of running a narco-empire in their remote-native hills on the country’s border with China.
‘The Wa said the Burmese gave them the land and that we had to go,’ said Phan La who claimed that twelve villages, his included, were emptied one year after UWSA’s arrival and that one village head who refused to leave was tortured, mutilated and finally killed. ‘The Wa felt they could do what they wanted. They bulldozed everything: villages, cemeteries, trees. They cut the old trees.’
After being pushed back by the Thai army as they tried to take refuge across the border, the fleeing Shan end-up cornered in camps like Loi Kaw Wan, set up in a narrow strip of land controlled by the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), another armed group. Their confinement has been exacerbated by the increasing militarization of the area, as the Burmese army and the UWSA built dozens of military outposts near the border surrounding both the RCSS’ bases and the IDP camps, according to a report Shan Human Rights Foundation launched earlier this year.
After the eviction, the IDPs relied on farms in the flat valley at the foot of their hill and supplies delivered across the border by international NGOs. But save for a few private donations, that aid stopped in 2017 due to declining funding while most of the paddy fields are now off-limits because of the UWSA. Shan villagers complained they are being squeezed against the border by the Wa army, which has been expanding its territories in southern Shan State, where it has some 10,000 soldiers to protect several businesses such as rubber plantations and Chinese-backed investments in dams and infrastructures.
‘We discuss with them whether we can use the land to farm or not. They are getting closer and closer,’ said Chai Pang, head of Loi Kaw Wan’s committee. ‘We are afraid to go because the Wa are always patrolling fully armed,’ he added.
Up in the hill, life is quieter. Just a few meters away from the rudimentary check-point, chickens roam at will around the houses aligned on one side of the trail where motorbikes go back and forth. Most of the houses are modest wooden constructions but some are built with bricks and concrete while others include shops selling crisps, drinks and groceries.
Another path leads to a monument dedicated to Naresuan, a Thai king who defeated the Burmese in the 1500s, before descending to a terrace where the camp has a school and a clinic, its two only facilities, together with a Buddhist temple, also affected by a cut of aid which appears to have disrupted the precarious but stable way of life the IDPs had consolidated over the years.
‘There are more cases of malnutrition and we have no money to buy medicines. We are also in debt with Thai hospitals where we send patients we can’t treat,’ said Bay Da, the chief of the self-managed clinic built years ago with Canadian aid. ‘This causes a lot of stress on the families,’ he added.
At the school -where 150 children learn Thai, Shan, English and Chinese language- teachers who relied on the rice they got as a supplement to a 1,000 Thai baht (29€) salary are forced now to look for other ways to earn a living. And all these ways, followed also by other IDPs, lead to the other side of the border.
‘Now every family has to send some of its members to work in Thailand,’ said Chai Pang. According to the camp committee chief, IDPs are mostly employed in Ban Phaya, the first village after the checkpoint, in construction or tea plantations. But these are seasonal jobs, for which they get no more than the Thai minimum salary of 300 baht per day. An additional difficulty is the lack of citizenship, ID or travel documents that IDPs sort out through informal arrangements which also allow them to send one hundred children to Thai schools.
Their lack of help stands in contrast with the humanitarian aid that flows since the mid-1980s to nine refugee camps set up further south on Thai soil across the border from Myanmar’s Karen State assisted by several NGOs and UNHCR. Unlike the Karen, who started crossing the border fleeing from the Tatmadaw in 1984, the Shan were never allowed to set up refugee camps in Thailand, where they were deemed as illegal immigrants.
Living conditions in Loi Kaw Wan are neither improved by the nearby presence of an RCSS’ military base, led by the organization’s deputy commander, Korn Zuen. He admitted his army can not supply the IDPs but said he negotiates with the Wa access for them to the paddy fields, although with little success. ‘They break every agreement,’ he said blaming the factionalism within the Wa and his inability to deal directly with UWSA’s higher echelons of command.
According to Korn Zuen, the UWSA has 150 soldiers in the area but that they can easily reinforce them in case of need. He avoided telling how many of the RCSS’ estimated 8,000 soldiers are under his command and where do they come from, although a UN Fact-Finding Mission named last year the organization as one of the ethnic armed groups suspected of having a “compulsory recruitment policy” of civilians.
The Shan commander also accused the Wa of trespassing the boundary between their territories describing it as ‘intimidation.’ ‘The Burmese government wants us to fight with the Wa so I try to be patient,’ he added.
Tensions with the Wa are further aggravated by RCSS’ deep mistrust of the Burmese Army despite the signing of a bilateral ceasefire in 2012 and the Shan insurgents joining a National Ceasefire Agreement three years after. ‘There’s no trust with the Tatmadaw and there are no talks with them now,’ he said.
The NCA, initially signed by seven other ethnic armed groups, was promoted by the previous government, led by former generals, which assumed power in 2011 after the Burmese army put an end to almost half a century of military rule. ‘The NCA was to show-off in front of the international community. They just want to get rid of us,’ he added while admitting that since then conflict in the area has been reduced to sporadic skirmishes.
The agreement was picked up in 2016 by a newly elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who set the end of the armed conflict that cripples Myanmar’s ethnic regions since its independence in 1948 as one of her priorities. Negotiations collapsed last year but Korn Zuen spared Suu Kyi, whom he sees as a hostage of the Tatmadaw and the broad powers it granted itself in the Constitution.
The protracted armed conflict hampers a solution for the thousands of civilians displaced from home. The Shan in the Thai border are just a fraction of the more than a million people forced to leave their homes because of violence throughout Myanmar. Around 86,000 refugees remain in the Karen camps in Thailand, while 8.000 more people became recently IDPs after another Tatmadaw offensive in northern Karen State.
In northern Shan State and neighbouring Kachin State, renewed fighting has increased the number of IDPs that by mid-August amounted to more than 106,000, according to UNHCR. In Rakhine State, 60,000 more have been displaced by clashes between the Burmese army and the Arakan Army, around the same area where in 2017 the Tatmadaw forced 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh in an offensive with ‘genocidal intent,’ according to the UN.
The chances for most of them to go back home are slim, as the armed conflict intensifies and mistrust of the Burmese army runs deep among civilians. Two attempts by the Myanmar government to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh have failed because the refugees refused to return as they believe they would not be safe.
In the camps in Thailand, a program of voluntary return assisted by UNHCR has only convinced 1,039 refugees since it started in 2016 despite providing financial, logistic support and ID cards. Some 19,000 more have returned on their own without any of these perks pushed by the deterioration in the living conditions due to declining funding.
In southern Shan State, IDPs face an even more uncertain and grim future. ‘We would like to go back but our land has been taken,’ said Chai Peng, Loi Kaw Wan’s committee chief. ‘Here we feel safe with the RCSS and near Thailand. Over there, there’s no guarantee of safety.’
‘We live day by day. I can’t think of any future. I have no hope. I will get old here and I will die here,’ added Phan La.