'All they have is land," an ethnic Kachin civil society leader said as he explained the growing frustration among internally displaced people living in camps in northern Myanmar. "They don't have houses left because they've been destroyed by conflict, so land is the only thing that ties them to what they left behind."
New hostilities in mid-August threw into sharp relief how civilians bear the burden of armed conflicts. In Myanmar's Kachin and Shan states, renewed fighting has prevented displaced people from returning home. It has also made clear that land ownership remains a persistent flashpoint.
After eight years of armed conflict, 97,600 internally displaced Kachin people live in 136 camps in areas controlled either by the government or by the Kachin Independence Army. Many have inadequate food and medical services, and international agencies face continuous government obstacles to providing humanitarian assistance.
The people in the camps want to go home but face a host of problems. They have few options for earning money to support a move. Desperation is prompting many women and girls to seek employment through brokers in China, and many have found themselves trafficked and sold in China as "brides" or sex slaves.
Landmine contamination in areas of return, seizures of people's lands, and continued insecurity also constrain people from returning home. A unilateral December 2018 ceasefire by the Myanmar military prompted 1,000 people in camps in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, to try to return to the village of Namsen Yang. In the end, only 70 returned, and their situation remains unsafe because of the conflict flaring around them, including land mines and unexploded ordnance near their villages.
Since independence in 1948, the Myanmar government and ethnic armed groups have engaged in numerous armed conflicts across the country. In Kachin State, a 17-year ceasefire ended in 2011 between the government and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army. Eight years later, the fighting continues.
Further problems were sparked by recent fighting after three out of the four armed groups that make up the insurgent Northern Alliance carried out coordinated attacks on military targets and civilian structures in Shan state, and near Mandalay. The Myanmar army swiftly retaliated. The United Nations reported that 17 civilians were killed and up to 8,000 displaced within the first two weeks of fighting.
The government-affiliated National Reconciliation and Peace Centre recently identified 17 villages in Kachin State as sites for possible returns. But a Kachin working committee overseeing returns said that more than half of them were unsafe and that their former residents had not been consulted. Keeping the displaced people out of the decision-making processes undermines efforts for voluntary, safe and sustainable returns.
Internally displaced peoples in Kachin feel a renewed urgency to return home, though. Myanmar enacted amendments to its land law in March that have prompted concerns that people who have observed customary land tenure practices for generations will lose their land. Under the Virgin, Fallow or Vacant Land Management Law, anyone cultivating land classified that way -- about 50 million acres, a third of the country's land -- faces eviction and up to two years in prison for trespassing. Many of the areas are in Kachin state.
A United Nations baseline survey of Kachin state households in 2018 showed that prior to fleeing their homes, 55% of people who fled had no documentation that could be used under the amended land law. After fleeing, 84% of those surveyed said they no longer had any documentation.
Chinese companies are buying or renting property Kachin families left when they fled for safety. Large tracts around urban Myitkyina and Waingmaw townships have been sold for the expansion of Chinese-owned banana plantations. Under international humanitarian law, displaced people have a right to return in safety to their homes. But now many fear that if they return, they may face arrest if they resume their farming.
The UN and the Myanmar government have been discussing a national strategy to close the camps and facilitate returns. A confidential strategy document that is supposed to outline a plan for returns in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan and Karen states has finally been finalised. However, civic and religious leaders in Kachin state told us that they were unaware of any such plan. They said they have not signed off on the strategy and moreover have raised concerns that displaced people don't know how it will affect them and their families.
While investigating crimes against humanity and possible genocide in Rakhine State against Rohingya Muslims, the United Nations-backed Fact-Finding Mission in 2018 established patterns of serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law in Kachin and Shan states, mainly committed by Myanmar's army, the Tatmadaw. Neither government soldiers nor members of ethnic armed groups have been held accountable for committing serious abuses.
What is clear is the current situation for affected civilians is untenable. With accountability for rights abuses not on the cards for either the Tatmadaw or ethnic armed groups, people who return face the possibility that they could be targeted again. But the urgency to return and secure their lands and restart their lives remains overwhelming.
Pressure by concerned governments is urgently needed to ensure voluntary, safe and secure returns of displaced people and access for human rights groups and humanitarian agencies to help deter against future abuses and meet returnees' basic needs.
Manny Maung is the Human Rights Watch researcher for Myanmar.