top of page

Asia | Forcible displacement from conflicts



On February 1, 2021, the day the new Parliament in Myanmar was scheduled to convene, the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s influential military) took power in a military coup. The military seized political control, halting any hope of democracy and resulting in dire political, social, and economic consequences for its population. The justification for such action was alleged widespread fraud in the 2020 elections, which led to a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. The Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), a military-backed political party that came second, rejected the results, purporting errors in voter lists to discredit the election.

In the subsequent weeks following the coup, large swathes of the population took to the streets to protest. The military responded by instituting a campaign of terror and violence and arresting any group or individual suspected of supporting democracy. Approximately 15,500 people have been arrested, with numbers continuing to rise and reports of torture being commonly practised in prisons. In addition, the human rights group Assistance Association of Political Prisoners (AAPP) has reported the regime’s security forces have killed more than 2,100 people since the coup. Conflict escalated across the country, with many taking up arms to form the People’s Defence Force (PDF). There is also the involvement of ethnic armed organisations (EAO), for example, The Karen National Union (KNU) situated along the Eastern border of Myanmar, which has fought against the military for decades. Although the military has been unable to consolidate its control throughout the country, in 2022 the UN human rights office stated that there was growing evidence of the most serious of international crimes amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, deportation and forcible transfer, persecution, imprisonment, and targeting of civilians.

Current Figures

Government Response

General Min Aung Hlaing, commander-in-chief of the Tatmadaw, and his junta (group of military leaders) still control Myanmar. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Win Myint, and other senior political leaders were detained by the military and a state of emergency was declared with the promise of a “free and fair” election being held in the future.

Since the 2021 Coup, the people of Myanmar have pinned their hopes on a ceasefire agreement and the promise of a democratic government but continued violent repression in different parts of the country has inflicted more suffering on IDPs. The Myanmar military is responsible for providing full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access to all persons in need. However, according to the UN, the military has instead put in place a system of physical and administrative restrictions on the conduct of humanitarian operations. This includes assessing casualties and responding to the needs of IDPs on the ground. There are reports of “people living in forests and improvised shelters without any access to life-saving services, such as medicines and, at times, food.”

Furthermore, the Tatmadaw has continued its violent campaign of suppression.  In response to online resistance, the Tatmadaw launched a ‘digital dictatorship’. This consisted of the censorship of all media, the closure of internet providers and restricted use of the international banking system, which impeded anti-military activists from any form of crowdfunding. Further, the Tatmadaw launched an airstrike campaign against multiple villages where EAOs were based and resulted in territorial destruction, food scarcity and political and economic instability. The KNU reportedly accused the Tatmadaw of displacing 12, 000 civilians due to territorial destruction.

Relief Efforts

After the events of February 2021, the situation in Myanmar was one of deteriorating security and growing violence, where as a result approximately 430,000 people were internally displaced. Persistent insecurity has had a dire impact on humanitarian access, with roadblocks and difficulties in obtaining access permits for aid distribution further complicated by restrictions linked to COVID-19. This situation has created a difficult operational environment. Nevertheless, the UNHCR, in collaboration with host communities and local stakeholders, was able to assist the displaced population.

Outside Myanmar, the UNHCR led efforts to protect and assist Rohingya refugees in the region, including those undertaking dangerous journeys at sea and cooperated with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other regional actors in order to find solutions for the Rohingya and other refugees from Myanmar. In Bangladesh, COVID-19 measures restricted humanitarian services in refugee camps, but the UNHCR adjusted its response to continue assistance and protection, including a vaccination and cash assistance programme. In 2021, 19,000 Rohingya refugees were relocated to Bhasan Char Island, an alternative temporary measure set up by the Government of Bangladesh to prevent overcrowded camp conditions. The UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding consisting of a policy framework and protection for the island. (For more details, see the Bangladesh case study).

In 2023, the UNHCR’s focus within Myanmar “will be on responsive and timely delivery of humanitarian assistance, strengthening community-based protection and resilience, and supporting pathways to durable solutions for IDPs and stateless persons, including an estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya.”

Despite the significant commitment made by international and national organisations, humanitarian assistance and access to affected people remains challenging. There have been reports of “administrative barriers for travel authorizations (TAs), incidents of detention and arrest of humanitarian actors, intimidation and harassment”. The obstruction of movement to and within Myanmar affects the efficient distribution of aid to those in need but also deters the involvement of humanitarian actors.

Political Risks

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan stated “internal displacement is the great tragedy of our time. The internally displaced people are among the most vulnerable of the human family.” Unlike refugees, IDPs do not have a special status in international law, with rights specific to their situation. The term ‘internally displaced person’ is merely descriptive. Therefore has no legal or political representation. There are political barriers to meeting the needs of IDPs, particularly regarding diverse ethnic groups. This is complicated further by protracted displacement and split governance. The armed conflict has affected different regions of Myanmar in different ways, but all resulting in the displacement of people.

  • In the North-West region, particularly Magway and Sagaing, displacement occurred within Myanmar, and neighbouring India due to frequent airstrikes, arson attacks, and landmine incidents.

  • In the South-East region, notably Palaw Township and Tanintharyi Region, a forced return of displaced people took place due to the declaration of martial law.

  • In Kachin and Shan (north of Myanmar), civilian casualties and injuries have been reported due to landmines and other explosives.

  • In Rakhine and Chin (south of Myanmar), an informal ceasefire took place in November 2022 between the Tatmadaw and the Arakan Army (AA), an ethnic armed organisation which has held but remains precarious. The AA is trying to control the borders with Bangladesh and India, which are essential for trade.

  • As a result of genocidal acts committed against the Rohingya people in 2017, most of the Rohingya fled the country. However, the authorities have continued their campaign of killing, rape and arson against those 600,000 Rohingya people who have remained in Myanmar. This situation is further exacerbated by an estimate of around 130,000 Rohingya who have been detained in detention camps since the ethnic cleansing campaign in 2012. Since the coup, restrictions on humanitarian aid have increased leading to large-scale illness and avoidable deaths in camps and villages.

Expected Trends

Countries that experience coups face restricted international financial support and, because of the nature of the seizure of power, are more likely to fall into cycles of political and economic instability. Currently, there is no indication of respite from the potential escalation of armed conflict, which would destroy more communities and more significant numbers of IDPs. Data suggest that 1.4 million people are anticipated to flee their homes in 2023. In conflict areas that are hard to reach, certain protection risks are expected to continue including forced recruitment, human trafficking, and other human rights violations. The number of people experiencing food insecurity is also expected to increase and will rise to 15.2 million people by the end of 2023 due to conflict-related agricultural disruptions and Explosive Ordinated (EO) contaminated land.

The UN has warned that the Myanmar crisis will take an enormous toll on women and children, with the military intentionally obstructing access to food, funds, medical aid and communication to weaken support for armed resistance and promote fear. A report by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar stated that “7.8 million children in the country remain out of school, 250,000 are internally displaced, and children have reportedly been abducted and recruited for armed conflicts.” It is estimated that 33,000 children will die from preventable causes due to a lack of routine immunizations. Experts have also warned that there will be a rapid increase in rates of childhood malnutrition, with 1.3 million children and more than 700,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women requiring nutritional support. It has also been reported that the Myanmar military has used rape and sexual violence as weapons of war, particularly towards ethnic minority groups such as the Rohingya. The reports indicate that “military targets, beats, burns with cigarettes, rapes, and holds as sex slaves in military bases Rohingya women and girls.” However, due to internet disruptions and lack of communications, the accounts of gender-based and sexual violence are likely underreported.

It is important to note that although the conflict in Myanmar since the 2021 coup has been between the junta and resistance groups, some ethnic groups remain in conflict. For example, in the northern Shan state, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party (SSPP), and Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) have been in conflict with each other over the control of central and northern Shan state. After the NCA signing in 2015, the RCSS aggressively pushed north towards the Chinese border, seizing a considerable portion of territory from the TNLA and SSPP, resulting in an alliance between these latter two ethnic armed groups. The fighting between the TNLA and SSPP on one side and RCSS on the other have displaced entire communities, leaving more than 20 village tracts deserted, which could lead to an increase in the number of people displaced who have no access to food, clean water, health care, education, and means of subsistence.

bottom of page