Junta pushes to close IDP camps to make way for China’s Belt and Road

There has been a notable escalation in pressure and attacks on civilians near China’s planned infrastructure projects in Myanmar’s north, according to new research

China’s State Council Information Office released a white paper on Tuesday promoting Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): a global development plan that has seen the East Asian superpower invest in infrastructure projects in more than 150 countries since 2013.

“Over the past decade, BRI cooperation has delivered real gains to participating countries,” Chinese state news organ Xinhuanet wrote, citing the white paper. “It has contributed to the sound development of economic globalization… opened up a new path for all humanity to realize modernization, and ensured that the efforts of building a global community of shared future are delivering real results.”

“Looking forward,” the article added, “China stands ready to work with other countries to pursue closer and more fruitful cooperation under the BRI framework… and build an open, inclusive, clean and beautiful world that enjoys lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity.”

Such bright-eyed declarations stood in stark contrast to another report released a day earlier, from Thailand. That report, published by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), found that Myanmar’s military regime is ramping up pressure to close down camps established for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country’s north, seemingly in an attempt to clear a path for BRI-related development projects.

The paper—entitled ‘Bloodstained Gateways’—examines the potential links between the junta’s escalating abuses against civilians in Kachin and northern Shan states and its attempts to secure transport routes for China’s expansion of the BRI. These abuses—which included aerial bombardment, shelling, arbitrary arrests, and the use of civilians as human shields—have sharply increased since mid-2022, the report said. 

They have also fuelled the displacement of nearly 14,000 civilians over the past fifteen months, according to the report, at the same time that the military council has been pursuing plans to shut down existing camps in the area which currently house more than 107,000 IDPs.

“Since the coup, increased pressure by the SAC authorities to shut down the IDP camps appears closely linked to their desire to fast-track Chinese investment, as many of the camps lie near planned BRI projects—tarnishing the image of stability that the regime wants to project,” the report noted. 

The report refers to Myanmar’s military council—the coup regime in Naypyitaw—by the acronym SAC, meaning State Administration Council, the name the coup leaders chose for themselves in 2021. 

Military council ministers reportedly visited a number of IDP camps throughout Kachin State between December 7, 2022 and February 2, 2023, urging displaced persons staying there to return to their homes, move to government-assigned resettlement sites, or relocate elsewhere.

“It is not suitable for IDPs to be staying in the town,” ministers told the villagers in one case. “It is not good for our international image.”

Children play inside the a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Myaikyina, Kachin State, Myanmar on July 15, 2019 (EPA)

By July, however, only 4,438 IDPs had returned to their homes in four of the villages designated for their return. The report noted that the vast majority of IDPs choose not to return to their villages of origin due to security concerns relating to the ongoing conflict and the frequent presence of Burmese military personnel—concerns that, in some cases, have proven well-founded.

On July 3, 2023, violent clashes erupted near one of the villages designated for the return of IDPs, Nam Sang Yang in Kachin State’s Waingmaw Township.  As hundreds of military council troops launched an offensive to retake control of the area from anti-junta armed groups and secure the nearby Bhamo-Myitkyina transport route, some shot at and injured fleeing villagers. Since these clashes broke out, 1,119 IDPs who had returned to Nam Sang Yang have all had to leave the area again.

Map by Kachin Women’s Association Thailand

“Already, our mapping shows that most of the human rights abuses by SAC forces in northern Burma since the February 2021 coup are located alongside planned BRI projects and transport corridors,” the Bloodstained Gateways report said, referring to Myanmar by an older name. “The latest SAC offensive since July 2023 to try and secure the Bhamo-Myitkyina road link has already led to fresh abuses against civilians, and caused returning IDPs to flee once again.”

Meanwhile, in Shan state, junta officials have either shut down IDP camps or reclassified them as regular villages, thus disqualifying the people staying there from receiving aid. Those who moved to resettlement sites would no longer be recognised as displaced, military council officials announced, despite their hopes to return to their home villages one day.

China has shown unfazed interest in pursuing its planned BRI projects in Myanmar, despite the ever-expanding list of atrocities the military council has committed against the nation’s civilian populace since the February 2021 coup. 

(Kachin Women’s Association Thailand)

On May 2, 2023, just three weeks after the military council’s air force carried out a devastating airstrike on a village in Sagaing, killing 165 civilians including dozens of women and children, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang met with junta chief Min Aung Hlaing to reaffirm China’s commitment to “exploring a development path suited to [Myanmar’s] national conditions.” Notably, he promised to “accelerate key cooperation projects of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor,” a cornerstone of the BRI in Myanmar.

Among the BRI projects that have continued to develop in the wake of the coup is the Muse-Mandalay high-speed railway—a proposed 431km cross-border train route intended to connect Kunming, the capital of China’s southern Yunnan province, to Mandalay in central Myanmar. Surrounding the tract of land designated for the railway are more than half a dozen IDP camps that have either been ordered to shut down or reclassified as villages.

(Kachin Women’s Association Thailand)

“Abuses have intensified amid escalating SAC offensives to secure transport routes in northern Burma—gateways for establishment of infrastructure projects across Burma under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI),” the report noted. “With conventional warfare failing against the resistance forces, the regime is increasingly resorting to collective punishment to try and assert control.”

Many of the IDP camps throughout Myanmar have typically received aid and support from international bodies such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Myanmar Now approached both UNHCR and UNICEF for comment but did not receive a response prior to publication.

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