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A 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) and Burma’s military unraveled in dramatic fashion in June 2011, unleashing some of the heaviest fighting to hit the country since the Second World War.
The resumption of hostilities in Kachin state, which began some three months after Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took office, has brought untold misery upon the more than 100,000 civilians estimated by the UN to have been displaced by the conflict that’s now in its second year.
Dau Lum, a 31-year-old Kachin farmer from Hkai Bang, a small village close to the Chinese border knows firsthand that despite a series of substantial democratic reforms Burma’s military continues to reign supreme.
A potentially precedent setting habeas corpus case filled by Dau Lum in early 2012 accusing the government of having unlawfully abducted his 28-year-old wife was quickly dismissed by Burma’s supreme court, in a terse ruling absolving the infamous Tatmadaw of any wrong doing.
Speaking via a crackling Chinese cell phone from the poorly equipped internally displaced persons (IDP) camp where he now lives on the Sino-Burmese border, Dau Lum recounts the horrific events that took place the last day he ever saw his wife alive. October 28, 2011 started out as fairly normal day for Dau Lum, who with his wife Sumlut Roi Ja and his elderly father were busy harvesting corn on their hillside farm near Maijayang, the second largest town controlled by the KIO.
Despite the fact that fighting had been going on between the military and the KIO for several months, Dau Lum and his family had yet to face the full effects of the conflict which had not yet spread to their area, that is until late in the afternoon when six heavily armed Burmese soldiers suddenly appeared at his farm, surrounding him, his wife and his father.
With guns drawn the soldiers accused Dau Lum and his 70-year father of being KIO soldiers. A bitter irony considering Dau Lum’s father had served in the Tatmadaw in the 1970s. Despite their protests that they were just simple farmers the soldiers tied Dau Lum and his father up and ordered them to carry their corn to the Mu Bum military base located on a nearby hill top. Although she was left untied Dau Lum’s young wife Roi Ja was also compelled to follow, according to Dau Lum.“Before dismissing the case the court did not take into account the detailed evidence we submitted”
About twenty minutes into the march along the steep mountain path Dau Lam says he and his father managed to break free of their ropes and get away by jumping down a ravine, narrowly escaping a hail of gunfire in the process. Roi Ja who was being closely guarded by the troops was unable to get away, explains Dau Lum, in a heavily Kachin accented Burmese.
“I have many things to say but I can’t speak out. I’ve cried many times since my wife was arrested and I have difficulty sleeping and no appetite,” adds Dau Lum.
Compounding his difficulties Dau Lum’s now two and half year old daughter Lum Nor, has been robbed of her mother. “After my wife was arrested, my daughter cried for her mother to come,” says Dau Lum before adding that his daughter’s first words were “mum”. He remains unsure how he will tell her what happened to Roi Ja, partially because he doesn’t know.
“Whenever my daughter sees some of her friends accompanied with their parents, she asks where her mother is. For me it is very hard to reply. I lie to her and say her mother has gone away to buy a snack,” Dau Lum said.
Life has been difficult since Dau Lum was forced to abandon his farm the day the alleged abduction took place. Thanks to the conflict, his once prosperous cornfield has been transformed into a land mine laden no man’s land situated between two opposing sides who continue to shoot at each other from time to time, this despite a recent series of positive negotiating sessions.
Dau Lum, who for many years served as his family’s main bread winner has the added responsibility of not just looking after his daughter but also his elderly parents and siblings, a task made increasingly difficult by the fact that he’s been forced to take shelter in an IDP camp where he has little means to earn a living. In the camp he lives alongside his fellow villagers who all evacuated from their farms when heavy fighting broke out nearby just days after Roi Ja disappeared.
In the days that followed her alleged abduction several witnesses using binoculars saw Roi Ja inside Mu Bum base, surrounded on three sides by the KIO with the fourth side against the Chinese border. On at least one instance Roi Ja was dressed in a Burmese military uniform and appeared to be paraded around for the soldiers entertainment. The sightings ceased after less than a week giving rise to suspicions that Roi Ja met an unnatural end.
Dau Lum’s attempt to seek justice using the Naypyidaw-based Supreme Court ended without any satisfaction says Mar Khar, a human rights lawyer based in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina. Shortly after hearing about what happened Mar Khar took up the case launching a habeas corpus challenge made possible under the new and largely pro-military constitution.
“Before dismissing the case the court did not take into account the detailed evidence we submitted,” said Mar Khar who has pursued several other high-profile cases involving Kachin civilians detained during the conflict, all with similar outcomes.
In their decision the judges said there was a lack of evidence citing the government’s claim that neither Dau Lum nor his father had taken steps to inform government authorities about the incident immediately after it reportedly happened. This despite the fact that On 4 November 2011, less than a week after the alleged abduction took place, Dau Lum’s father sent three near identical letters to the Kachin state chief minister, the Bhamo District governor and a local military commander who heads Battalion 321, which includes the Mubum base, recounting what he witnessed. The letters, which requested that his daughter in law be released immediately, never received any reply.
The fact that Dau Lum and his father were barred from testifying during the hearings in Naypyidaw, although military personnel from the unit alleged to be involved were given this opportunity, added to the widely held view in Burma that the country’s highest court is not even remotely independent. Part of a judiciary that experts claim has not changed at all since the days of strict military rule.
In September 2012, a leading Kachin advocacy group the Kachin Women Association Thailand (KWAT) wrote an open letter to President Thein Sein urging him to immediately authorise a retrial of the Roi Ja case. This request was also met with no response.
“We have no way, no place to find justice for the person who has suffered human rights abuses or violence committed by the government’s army,” said Moon Nay Li from the advocacy team at KWAT. “[The] military still has the power in Burma.”
Despite mounting criticism of Burma’s legal system has kept with up with pace of reform, Soe Thane, a former general who serves as the country’s investment minister claimed during a panel discussion held as part of the World Economic Forum in Naypyidaw that the country’s judiciary had made great strides as of late. A claim met with scepticism by his co-panelist opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Although the fighting in northern Burma has lessened significantly since January, when military aircraft carried out unprecedented air strikes against KIO positions, things are far from stable in Kachin state.
A coalition of 60 Kachin community organisations and Burma campaign groups based in 21 countries recently held a global day of action to mark the second anniversary of the end of Kachin ceasefire. A joint statement released by the groups involved accused the Burmese military of committing serious war crimes.
“Kachin civilians have suffered from human rights violations, including rape of women and children, arbitrary execution, torture, forced labour, mortar bombing, burning and looting of villages,” the statement read.
During a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Lt-Gen Myint Soe, the commander who oversees the army’s operations in Kachin state, refuted criticism of the military’s conduct during the Kachin conflict.
“Don’t believe everything you hear. There are many rumors, endless rumors,” he said.
Myint Soe’s pronouncement gives cold comfort to Dau Lum, who faces a very uncertain future.
“I don’t expect to see my wife again.”