An estimated 600,000 to 1 million Burmese were internally displaced at the end of 2001. A continuing lack of access to the country made it difficult to assess accurately the number of displaced or the conditions in which they were living.

More than 450,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers were in neighboring countries at year's end. These included 276,000 in Thailand (mostly ethnic Karen, Shan, and Karenni, along with some ethnic Burman pro-democracy activists); 52,000 mostly ethnic Chin in India; approximately 122,000 ethnic Rohingya in Bangladesh; 41 Rohingya in Malaysia; and an unknown number in China (mostly Kachin). Smaller numbers were in Japan, South Korea, and elsewhere.

Hundreds of thousands of Burmese lived in neighboring countries in refugee-like circumstances, including about a quarter-million in Thailand and 5,000 in Malaysia. Many may have fled Burma because they feared persecution.

Political Developments and Human Rights

The political and human rights situation in Burma changed little during the year, despite initial hopes raised by "secret talks" between the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). The talks began in October 2000 and continued throughout most of 2001.

The SPDC, the latest military junta to rule Burma, was formerly known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). The junta seized power in 1988 and renamed the country Myanmar. The Burmese people voted the NLD into power in 1990, but the military leaders prevented the opposition party from taking office.

During 2001, the SPDC released 190 imprisoned NLD members and allowed some NLD offices to reopen, raising expectations that concrete progress toward democratization would take place and that NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi – who has been under virtual house arrest for years – would be freed as well. At year's end, however, the SDPC showed no visible signs of ceding power.

Persistent evidence of a power struggle within the SPDC leadership also fanned the hopes of the democracy movement, but there were few results by year's end.

Throughout 2001, the SPDC continued to target not only pro-democracy activists but also the ethnic minorities who comprise up to half of Burma's population. Some ethnic minorities, particularly the Karen, have organized armies that are still fighting for regional autonomy, while others have reached cease-fire agreements with the SPDC. Some minorities, such as the Rohingya (who are Muslim) and Chin (who are largely Christian), also face religious persecution.

Forced labor and forced relocation are the major causes of internal displacement and refugee flight. The conscription of citizens as porters by the army – with attendant mistreatment, illness, and sometimes death – remained widespread, despite SPDC pledges to curtail the practice.

During the year, new Rohingya arrivals to Bangladesh reported that after U.S. military action began in Afghanistan in October, the Burmese military became concerned about possible terrorist insurgents and increased its use of forced labor to enhance military facilities along the Bangladesh border.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma visited Burma twice in 2001, unlike his predecessor, whom the SPDC never allowed into the country. These visits raised speculation that economic hardship and international pressure had forced the military regime to open itself slightly to international scrutiny.

Internal Displacement

In the absence of firm data, most estimates of Burma's internally displaced population remained at about 600,000 to 1 million. The most recent estimate of displacement in Karen State alone was 200,000.

Ethnic minorities, many of whom are rural people, constitute most of Burma's internally displaced population. Significant numbers of ethnic Burmans (Burma's largest and ruling ethnic group) are also displaced from cities or villages, however. Most displacement results from forced labor and relocation, and fighting between the Burmese military and ethnic insurgents.

The internally displaced generally fall into two categories. The first group includes those whom the military regime relocates to cut off the opposition armies' access to food, finances, communications, and recruits. Forcing civilians into relocation centers also provides the military a steady supply of laborers.

The second group consists largely of those who refuse to relocate or who flee the relocation areas because they cannot survive there, as well as those who flee their homes because of other types of persecution. The uprooted generally flee toward the Thai border, but are often stopped by Burmese troops or Thai border guards.

According to an ethnic Karen relief group, the army continued "destroying rice supplies, torturing and executing villagers" and terrorizing the population by the systematic laying of landmines throughout each district." Continued fighting between the SPDC-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Karen National Union also caused displacement and refugee flight.

During the year, fighting between ethnic Shan insurgents and Burmese troops, as well as the Burmese regime's relocation of tens of thousands of ethnic Wa into traditional Shan areas, forced thousands of Shan to become internally displaced and flee to Thailand.

No UN agencies or international nongovernmental organizations have official access to internally displaced persons in Burma. Although several such organizations are present in Burma and operate projects that may indirectly benefit the displaced, the Burmese regime sharply restricts their activities.

Cross-border assistance programs – although limited – provide emergency food and medical assistance to some of the most vulnerable among the displaced.

Refugees from Burma

The status of the more than 276,000 Burmese refugees and estimated 250,000 Burmese in refugee-like circumstances in Thailand remained precarious. Thailand's criteria for admitting new refugees remained restricted to persons "fleeing fighting," since Thailand does not consider people fleeing human rights abuses to be refugees. On November 6, Thailand forcibly repatriated 63 Karen asylum seekers to Burma.

Thai authorities continued to deny most Shan access to refugee camps, forcing them to remain in Thailand "illegally."

In mid-2001, refugee advocates became concerned by reports that Thailand had requested the assistance of the International Organization for Migration to facilitate repatriation of Burmese refugees to so-called "safe areas" inside Burma and to help refugees earn a living after their return. By year's end, however, no such steps had been taken.

An estimated 22,000 Burmese Rohingya lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh, assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Another 100,000 Rohingya lived outside the camps there and were considered "illegal immigrants" by the Bangladesh government. During the year, 283 refugees repatriated from Bangladesh with UNHCR assistance. UNHCR provided the returnees cash and housing grants, as well as some commodities. The World Food Program gave them six months of food rations. The Myanmar Red Cross Society also provided services for vulnerable persons.

Late in the year, UNHCR offices in Burma and Bangladesh held a series of meetings with Burmese authorities to review the repatriation process, which, according to UNHCR, has been impeded by technical difficulties during the past few years. As a result of the meetings, Burma agreed to accelerate the return of some 5,000 Rohingya refugees that it had previously "approved" for return. Most Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, however, refuse to return to Burma.

At least 52,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Chin, lived in India. Although Indian authorities forcibly returned some 200 Burmese Chin refugees in 2000, no such forced returns occurred in 2001, to UNHCR's knowledge.


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