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Brang Shawng was 12 when Burmese troops shot his mother. She had sent him to scout for soldiers on the outskirts of their village near Man Win, Bhamo district, when he spotted them.
“I asked my mum to run, because the Burmese soldiers were coming, but she wouldn’t come with me,” he says. “I heard three loud gunshots but kept running. When I came back to find her she had a big hole in her chest and her legs were broken.”
His mother, a 50-year old with mental health problems, had stayed behind to look for a lost key. She is now one of a growing number of Kachin civilians killed, raped or abused by the Burmese army since a ceasefire with ethnic rebels broke down nearly one year ago. According to a Human Rights Watch report published in March, the Burmese army has systematically “attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people.”
An only child with no father, Brang Shawng now lives with a pastor in Nawng Tau camp on the Chinese side of the border. Sitting in a dark room in Hotel Ma Ja Yang, he peers out from beneath a dirty baseball cap. “I want to become a solider now so that I can revenge the death of my mother.”
Despite repeated promises to end the conflict and recent moves to include the army in ceasefire negotiations, President Thein Sein has still made no effort to hold the army to account for alleged abuses. The government continues to block foreign journalists and humanitarian aid from entering rebel-held territories in Kachin state, while the army steps up its assault on the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The president’s failure to rein in the army has been a source of acute embarrassment for the regime, and casts doubts on its reformist credentials. In the latest round of ceasefire talks with Shan rebels, Railway Minister Aung Min insisted that “the president has instructed the government troops to stop any offensive against the Kachin Independence Army, but in some cases the order might not reach down all the way to the local area. But in most cases, the [army is] not taking the offensive, they’re undertaking defensive action.”“Peace doesn’t really mean anything if there isn’t any justice”
As mortar shells descend closer to Laiza, few Kachins are willing to take these claims seriously. Indeed many of the 75,000 civilians scattered across displacement camps along the Chinese border report growing fears of extermination. In a recent letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the KIA’s political wing – the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) – directly accused the Burmese army of ethnic cleansing. While such serious allegations are in dispute, rights groups insist that war crimes have been committed, and perpetrators must be held to account for a ceasefire to be possible.
“Peace doesn’t really mean anything if there isn’t any justice and the longer that you delay having justice mechanisms bringing people to account or at least openly acknowledging what’s been taking place, then the peace will always be fragile,” said David Mathieson, senior Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Thus far all efforts to obtain justice have been rebuffed. In a landmark case, the Kachin Women’s Association (KWA) helped the husband of Sumlut Roi Ja – a woman abducted and killed by Burmese soldiers last October – to file a lawsuit against the army. But the Supreme Court dismissed the suit in March citing a lack of proof, despite substantial eyewitness reports and photographic evidence presented by the claimants.
Campaigners say the case represents a microcosm for Burma’s inept and corrupt justice system. “We need better institutions all over the country not just Rangoon and Naypidaw but also in the ethnic areas,” said Moon Nay Li, coordinator of the KWA. “We need to pressure the Myanmar Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to start acting freely from the government.”
In March, the government pledged to start prosecuting military personnel accused of using forced labour in civilian courts. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), five people have already been convicted under the new framework. While campaigners have welcomed the move, they insist it must also translate into accountability for other violations committed in conflict zones.
Nor is the Burmese army the only culprit. Ethnic groups, including the KIA, have been accused of committing war crimes, notably the use of landmines and child soldiers. When pressed on the latter, KIA spokesperson La Nan shrugs. “I think we need to look at the situation of how child soldiers end up in the army. Sometimes naughty children get sent away by their parents.”
He adds that landmines are a necessary part of the KIA’s military defence, but that they erect warning signs to prevent civilians from trespassing over dangerous territory.
Mathieson maintains that the global community has a responsibility to vocally condemn abuses on all sides. “It should be speaking up much louder on the violations taking place in Kachin state, but it’s much too busy patting itself on the back for some of the reforms happening in Burma, which goes to show where the interests of the west have triumphed over the rights of people in conflict zones in Burma.”
In a candid admission, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Tomas Quintana told DVB that a UN-led commission of inquiry – on the agenda as recently as last year – was no longer politically feasible. But, he said “what is clearly necessary now is the initiation of a process of justice and accountability in Myanmar [Burma] and the UN has a responsibility to follow up on this.”
Quintana was denied entry to Kachin state on his February visit to Burma, but intends to push for access again on his forthcoming trip this summer. He will also be meeting with the government, opposition groups and civil society in an effort to garner support for an independent accountability process to investigate human rights violations. This, he says, is fundamental to Burma’s political transition.
“For any democratic reform to be successful it is necessary to address the impunity question,” said Quintana. “Sooner or later the problem arises and you have to face it.”