Chin state abuses are the tip of the iceberg

Recently a new Burmese legislature convened for the first time in 22 years, but the parliament resembles last year’s electoral exercise – an elaborate show that is a democracy only in name. Yesterday, as DVB reported, Burma snatched power from judges as well.

The 50 million people living in Burma are still under the military regime’s repressive rule, and for them, the human rights abuses that they suffer at the hands of the military junta are a regular way of life.

Burma’s military regime has been a constant roadblock to democracy. The new parliament is under the junta’s strong arm, and 84 percent of all parliamentary seats are reserved for current military officers or held by General Than Shwe’s cronies – the same army soldiers who committed 73 percent of all reported human rights violations last year. The brutal treatment of ethnic nationalities under the military junta is well known to the international community, but the mass atrocities that they suffer have been deliberately hidden from the world by this repressive regime.

Physicians for Human Rights recently went door-to-door in Burma’s remote western Chin state to conduct a random survey of 702 households. Together with our local partners, we documented 2,951 abuses over a 12-month period. We found that government authorities may have killed an estimated 1,000 household members, tortured 3,800 individuals and raped 2,800 adults and children over the course of the 12-month reporting period. And that’s in just one state of 500,000 people who represent one percent of the total population of Burma. Our report, Life Under the Junta, presents strong evidence that Burmese authorities are committing crimes against humanity.

One 18-year-old woman told us how the Burmese military raped her at gunpoint in June 2009 in her rural village in Mindat. The reason they raped her and forced her into servitude is because she is Christian and Chin – a different ethnic nationality than the military, who are mostly Buddhist and Burmese.

The collective voices captured in our survey speak for a brutalized population who will not see the results of Burma’s new “democracy.” As one of its first orders of business, the new parliament should allow a full and independent investigation into these possible crimes. Such an investigation, which the United Nations could establish as a commission of inquiry, is an essential first step to help Burma replace impunity with accountability and bring justice and stability to the people of Burma.

I was in Geneva in the days before Burma’s review of its deplorable human rights record by the United Nations. While there, I had the opportunity to speak with UN delegations of countries that publicly support an investigation of crimes in Burma. The leadership these countries have shown in forging a path to justice is a hopeful sign, but more countries must join their ranks. Currently 14 countries publicly support establishing a UN Commission of Inquiry, most of which are Western democratic governments. Now these 14 countries, including the United States, should build cross-regional unity in the push for accountability in Burma to end these mass atrocities.

We know that Burmese authorities will continue the abuses that it has been committing for decades, and that the government will not investigate the crimes on its own. Under this regime of impunity, the 18-year-old Chin woman who told us her tale of survival will have no recourse to justice. International action is essential for justice, accountability, and a peaceful future. Now is the time for the international community to come together, stand alongside the people of Burma and Aung San Suu Kyi, and demand accountability in a country that has been plagued with injustice.

Richard Sollom is deputy director of the Nobel prize-winning Physicians for Human Rights.

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