Conditions for civilians in Burma’s border regions, long beset by conflict and lack of development, have continued along the same trajectory for nearly two decades, despite elections a year ago that many hoped would prompt an improvement in livelihoods for ethnic peoples, a study of the past year warns.
The mood of the report is built on testimonies collected since November 2010 from 1,207 civilians in four states and divisions in eastern Burma– Karen, Mon, Tenasserim and Karenni. It seeks to build a retrospective of a year that many claim has dramatically altered the landscape in Burma.
But the findings appear to prove otherwise. “Some people are discussing changes since the election, and the potential for reform. But the villagers speaking and working with us are struggling to respond to the same abuses now as in the past,” said Saw Albert, field director for the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), which compiled the report.
“Nothing that has happened over the last 12 months has created new opportunities for them to address this abuse – let alone resolved the root causes.”
Among its findings is evidence of continued egregious human rights abuses by the army “consistent with patterns of abuse that KHRG has documented over the last twenty years”. These include “forced expropriation of labour, land and property from rural communities and the wide-scale and destructive extraction of natural resources”.
Both are cause and effect of heavy militarisation of Burma’s border regions, which began half a century ago to quell rebellions by ethnic armies, but which has ramped up over the past decade as the government looks to secure these resource-rich regions for exploitation.
In many areas conflict has intensified since the November 2010 elections, which ironically ushered in a pseudo-civilian government and cautious hope that protracted wars would end. Fighting against groups like the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in the country’s north were triggered by their refusal to become government-controlled Border Guard Forces.
The report notes that of the seven regions in eastern Burma where testimonies were taken, civilians in four had been tortured by Burmese troops over the past year. All regions had populations that had suffered as a result of landmines and indiscriminate firing of artillery, while at least one civilian in five of the seven regions had been extra-judicially executed.
Yet many assessments of Burma by international players lend somewhat myopic attention to the political reforms underway, whilst sidelining ongoing abuses of ethnic minorities, KHRG says.
“No accurate external assessment of current conditions in eastern Burma can be conducted without heeding the concerns of rural people who are gauging, on a day-to-day basis, the way abuse compromises their priorities,” notes the report.
That emphasis on local voices, which are largely left out of think tank reports and governmental statements hailing the perceived transition to democracy, “should function as a stinging critique of any attempt to assess changes since the election that excludes the voices of rural people in ethnic areas”, it adds.