Junta officials initiated the shutdown of 25 temporary settlements for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Sittwe, Rakhine State, last week, demanding that the inhabitants sign pledges to leave, according to an IDP staying at one of the camps.
The military summoned representatives of the IDP communities on December 29 to notify them of the intended closures. IDPs were reportedly required to sign and submit a letter to the township administration office by Tuesday, after choosing from among three options: to move to a new place of their own choice, live in a place assigned by the military council, or return home.
Most IDPs at the camps are reluctant to answer reporters’ questions after the military warned them against communicating with the media about their eviction from the camps. However, a few IDPs spoke with Myanmar Now, requesting anonymity.
“There is not a single person that doesn’t want to return home, and no one wants to live in hardship at the IDP camp, but there isn’t a home to return to anymore!” an IDP at one of the camps said. “There’s a direction on those forms saying we must choose one of the options, so I opted to stay at a place they assigned.”
He added that the form said the military would provide 600,000 kyat ($280) and two bags of rice to each IDP who opted for a place of resettlement assigned by the military, but there would be no support for those who resettled according to their own plans. Most IDPs opted to move where the military sent them, he said.
“To be frank, I do not want to stay where they tell us, but we don’t have the freedom of choice anymore, do we?” a woman living at another IDP camp said on Tuesday. “I thought about just going back to my own village, and ultimately opted to do so as I apparently have no other choice. I already submitted the form today.”
The woman—originally from Yae Soe Chaung village in Rathedaung Township—was conscious of the danger from landmines and other remnant explosive devices upon returning home.
During battles between the military and the Arakan Army (AA) near her home village in 2019, the use of explosive weapons including landmines was routine. Some 500 soldiers had been stationed inside the village for extended periods, which raised the likelihood that there were still remnant explosives in the area.
To avoid civilian casualties in the area, the military council would not only have to withdraw its garrison but also sweep for mines in and near the village, she said.
“We are afraid to go back to our own village because the military is still stationed there and no one has swept for mines yet,” she added. “It’s a farming village, so there’s also a risk that there are landmines set in the fields.”
Khaing Thukha, spokesperson for the AA, told Myanmar Now that the military must take responsibility for sweeping the remnant landmines in order for the IDPs to return home.
Another IDP said she was worried about being transferred to an area where the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA) is active. The armed insurgent group has been accused of abducting and committing other acts of violence against civilians in Rakhine State.
“It’s certain that we can’t go home until there’s peace in the country, so I opted to stay at the place arranged by [the military], but they didn’t specify where they would place us. We’re worried about being sent near Maungdaw as the ARSA is operating there,” she said.
The AA and military have been observing an informal ceasefire since late November of last year, but the IDPs worry that fighting may resume after they move. Civilian casualties have been reported in the state as recently as late October.
Aung Kyaw Min, Rakhine State’s junta-appointed chief minister, declared at a meeting on December 23 that peace had been achieved in the state and that IDP camps would therefore be shut down.
In a statement released on December 30, the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that between August and November 2022, more than 23,000 people had been displaced in Rakhine and southern Chin states by conflict between the AA and military. Added to the number already displaced by the conflict, the total number of IDPs in these areas exceeded 90,000.
Rakhine is not the only state where the junta has proposed to close temporary settlement sites for people displaced by conflict. The Myitkyina Journal, a local news outlet, reported in a January 3 article that the military was planning the permanent closure of more than 20 IDP camps in and near the Kachin State capital Myitkyina.
The IDPs in these camps had chiefly been forced from their homes by fighting between the military and the Kachin Independence Army in 2011.
According to the article, the junta plans to shut down the camps in 2023 and will present the camps’ inhabitants with the same three choices as the IDPs in Rakhine, including resettlement to assigned areas.