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‘My children have never had a home’

Across Burma, it is estimated that between one to three million men, women and children remain internally displaced as a result of conflict, human rights abuse and a long series of other coercive measures that make it impossible for them to live a stable life in their homelands. ‘Displaced Childhoods’, a report released today by Partners Relief & Development and Free Burma Rangers, says that children in these families are suffering significantly, leaving the Burmese authorities in direct violation of international law.

Without inalienable rights to life’s necessities, hundreds of thousands of minors are living without stable access to food, shelter, education and healthcare. The report claims that not only is the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) making no effort to alleviate these problems, but in many areas is actively exacerbating them as part of military offensives against ethnic minority insurgents.

For decades, the SPDC has fought with ethnic armies which demanding greater autonomy and political participation. Largely facing opponents that use guerrilla hit-and-run tactics, the Burma army has adopted what has been dubbed a ‘Four Cuts’ strategy in an effort to wipe them out. By subjugating ethnic minorities and devastating entire communities, the SPDC aims to systematically cut off the insurgents’ supplies of food, shelter, intelligence and recruits. The brutal measures taken to this end include burning entire villages, laying landmines throughout farmlands and frequented paths, extrajudicial killings in areas out of tight control, persistent torture of civilians and the much documented use of “rape as a weapon.”

Already this year thousands of people have had their homes destroyed by the army and its proxy armed forces. January and February saw at least 114 houses destroyed and over 4000 families flee to the jungle in Burma’s eastern Karen state alone.

Such practices and forced relocation for development projects are considered the main causes of displacement in Burma, along with the inability to sustain livelihoods due to economic repression and human rights violations, such as forced labour, forced conscription and violent abuse.

The exact numbers of internally displaced people (IDPs) living in Burma are impossible to obtain, but numerous studies from recent years have shown them to be critically high. Surveys carried out by the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) in 2009 conservatively estimated that there are 470,000 IDPs now living in eastern Burma, while more speculative figures reach up to three million nationwide.

Thousands of these families have remained in hiding for decades, on the run from the army, generation after generation. Naw Paw Leh, a Karen refugee now living in Thailand, is a grandmother of three and has been moving from settlement to settlement since her teens.

“My home village was destroyed when I was a girl because of local support for the Karen National Union (KNU),” she explained. “My four children and all their children were born in the jungle and have never had a home. We just moved around making new settlements in the jungle [up to] four times per year.”

When asked what problems the children in her family still in the jungle face, the list was long. “The main thing is food,” she began, lifting a skinny arm up to her mouth. “They have no education and can’t even farm. People always get sick and we have no medicine. We sometimes use herbs and chicken bones but many children die.”

‘Displaced Childhoods’ claims that one in every five IDP children in Burma dies before the age of five, while “mortality rates of displaced children in conflict areas are estimated to be three times higher than Burma’s national average”.

As the report details, the SPDC’s total refusal to acknowledge these people and take the necessary steps to provide them with humanitarian support are out of line with the United Nation’s 10 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and in direct violation of numerous international human rights laws and UN conventions. Despite this, documentation by the UN continues to understate the seriousness of the situation compared with that conducted by groups focusing on these issues.

‘Displaced Childhoods’ is the latest of many human rights reports to put on record severe abuse of children in Burma by the SPDC. But in both 2007 and 2009, a UN report on children and armed conflict in Burma gave very few cases of abuse on children and little indication that such incidents were frequent.

In particular the 2009 report gave no mention of attacks on hospitals or schools, an act considered by the UN as one of the “Six Grave Violations” of the rights of children in armed conflicts. ‘Displaced Childhoods’ documents 12 incidences of displacement nationwide in the 12 months prior to June 2009, many of which involved multiple villages. Despite dire poverty throughout these areas, many of these villages had schools and clinics, mostly administered by organisations based in Thailand.

In one recent case, not included in the report, between the 3 and 7 February this year, two villages in northern Karen state were torched by the Burmese army. During the attacks, one clinic was burnt to the ground while at least two schools were destroyed and nine more abandoned.

Speaking from a jungle hiding weeks after the incident, one teacher said: “We left before they got there so the children were not attacked. Some people have been back to the village and said that the blackboard has gone and everything is broken. We are continuing class in the forest now. It is difficult but it’s important they continue to study.”

The discrepancy between UN reports and those of organisations working along the Thai-Burma border is of great significance. While the SPDC refuses to allow the International Criminal Court jurisdiction to hear a case, these crimes will almost certainly go unpunished by the international community without UN security council intervention.

Furthermore, the politically centrist policies of most international NGOs working in Burma make it difficult for them to rely on studies carried out by organisations linked to armed or political opposition groups when allocating funds or setting up aid programmes. While documentation by international agencies such as the UN fails to portray the severity of violations of children’s rights in Burma, the issues will remain untouchable and largely unaddressed by such groups.

The report concludes with calls for the Burmese government “to end violations against children and comply with its obligations under international human rights and humanitarian law. The SPDC must prevent further displacements from taking place and make efforts to protect and assist internally displaced communities in Burma. Partners and FBR further call on the United Nations to investigate the serious and well-documented allegations of large-scale displacements in Burma that likely amount to crimes against humanity and/or war crimes. All children should be able to enjoy free and full lives.”

JJ Kim works for Burma Matters Now