An estimated 600,000 to 1 million Burmese were internally displaced at the end of 2002. A continuing lack of access to the country made it difficult to accurately assess the number of displaced or the conditions in which they were living.
More than half a million Burmese refugees and asylum seekers were in neighboring countries at year's end. These included 335,000 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; more than 200 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 250,000 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 showed no improvement during the year, despite hopeful signs in May when authorities released democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from 19 months of house arrest. According to the Burmese Border Consortium, reports suggested that 2002 was "the worse year for human rights abuses and destruction by the Burmese army since 1997."
The State Peace and Development Council (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. Burmese overwhelmingly voted the National League for Democracy into power in 1990, but the military leaders prevented the opposition party from taking office.
Throughout 2002, the SPDC continued to arrest and harass pro-democracy activists, despite the continued release of some political prisoners begun in 2001.
Military atrocities against ethnic minorities, who comprise up to half of Burma's population, continued unabated. In one example in late April, several Karen families fleeing toward Thailand spent the night in a group of rice huts along the way. A Burmese infantry column discovered them sleeping and "unleashed a barrage of fire into the huts," killing ten people, including six children, according to the Karen Human Rights Group. In January, according to the Shan Human Rights Foundation, army troops detained and beat 29 villagers in Shan State for failing to grow opium. When one man died from the beating, the military ordered the others to carry his remains back to his village and later extorted money from them.
Some of the 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 from the ruling Buddhist regime. A Human Rights Watch report issued in July said the Burmese government had "imposed restrictions on Muslim religious activities and taken no action to punish those responsible for destroying Muslim homes and mosques." The Chin Human Rights Organization reported in June that Burmese security forces often forced villagers to tear down crosses, which were later replaced with pagodas – sometimes through the use of forced labor.
Forced labor and forced relocation, and the resulting atrocities, 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.
In one example of forced relocation, the Karen Human Rights Group recounted the Burmese army's arrival in Dooplaya District, in southern Karen State, in February: "[Military] columns went from village to village, forcing villagers out of their houses, beating them, and forcing them to watch as soldiers looted their homes and tortured their elders. The entire populations of some villages were detained in their churches for days without food before their houses were burned."
The military relocates civilians to cut off the opposition armies' access to food, finances, communications, and recruits. Forcing civilians into relocation centers also provides the military with a steady supply of laborers. The centers are often fenced in, and the residents are subject to harsh labor conditions with little food and virtually no medical treatment. Malnutrition is widespread, and numerous deaths are reported.
In July, the Thailand-based Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women's Action Network jointly issued a report documenting the Burmese military's systematic rape of hundreds of women and girls in Shan State. The report, based on interviews with refugees, said that in Burma "rape is officially condoned as a weapon of war against the civilian populations" and that there is "a concerted strategy by the Burmese army troops to rape Shan women as part of their anti-insurgency activities." The U.S. State Department said it was "appalled" by the allegations and urged the Burmese regime to fully investigate them.
During the year, the Burmese military invoked the global war on terrorism as its rationale for continued crackdown on Rohingya Muslims.
Although firm data continued to be impossible to obtain, estimates of Burma's internally displaced population ranged from 600,000 to 1 million at the end of 2002.
Ethnic minorities, many from rural areas, constitute most of Burma's internally displaced population. Significant numbers of ethnic Burmans (Burma's largest ethnic group) are also displaced from cities or villages. 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 forcibly relocated by the military. 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.
Fighting between the SPDC-aligned Democratic Karen Buddhist Army and the Karen National Union also causes displacement and refugee flight.
In October, Refugees International reported that the number of internally displaced persons in Burma increased during 2002 because of the frequency of counterinsurgency operations in ethnic-dominated areas. The report also noted, "The fact that 42 percent of [internally displaced persons] in eastern Burma choose to live on the run and in hiding rather than move to government-run relocation sites adds credence to the fact that many relocation sites resemble concentration camps."
No UN agencies or international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have official access to internally displaced persons in Burma. Although several such organizations are in the country and run projects that may indirectly benefit the displaced, the Burmese regime sharply restricts their activities.
Limited cross-border assistance programs provide emergency food and medical assistance to some of the most vulnerable among the displaced.
Refugees from Burma
The status of the more than 335,000 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 violations to be refugees.
In January, Thai authorities forced back across the border some 600 to 700 Burmese who fled fighting between the Burmese army and an ethnic Mon splinter group.
Thailand continued to deny most Shan access to refugee camps, forcing them to remain in Thailand without authorization.
In October, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) discussed with SPDC officials the prospect of a UNHCR presence inside Burma in the event of a repatriation agreement between Burma and Thailand.
Nearly 22,000 Burmese Rohingya lived in refugee camps in Bangladesh, assisted by UNHCR. Another 100,000 Rohingya lived outside the camps and were considered "illegal immigrants" by the Bangladeshi government. During the year, 760 refugees repatriated from Bangladesh with UNHCR assistance. NGOs, however, claimed that many of the returns were coerced.
UNHCR provided the returning Rohingya with 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.
An estimated 52,000 Burmese refugees, mostly ethnic Chin, lived in India at year's end. Of those, some 51,000 lived in the border region, while nearly 1,000 lived in New Delhi and were considered refugees under the mandate of UNHCR.