The Burmese army has continued to carry out unprovoked attacks on civilians in Karen state, including the shelling last week of a camp housing internally displaced persons (IDPs), despite an agreement on 12 January to end hostilities.
Although there has been a significant reduction in fighting, several incidents of violence and pillage of food supplies were recorded by the humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) over the past three weeks.
On 24 January, troops from Battalion 351 and Battalion 60 fired mortars into Ler Doh IDP camp in Nyaunglebin district, western Karen state. Staff from FBR, which carries out relief efforts in Burma’s border regions, witnessed more than 40 army trucks carrying supplies to Nyaunglebin last week, suggesting a bolstering of forces in the area.
“Two days ago in the mountains, we could hear the Burma Army shelling towards Karen villages as they advanced to supply their camps,” FBR staff reported from the field. Sporadic clashes between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and government forces also took place.
A pastor interviewed by their team explained: “Last week the Burma army told us, ‘Now there is change in Burma, if you contact the Karen National Union [the KNLA’s political wing], you will be severely punished’.”
Another church leader said, “We have been forced to move three times. The Burma army just told some of us that we could go back home, but when we asked about proof in writing, there was none.”
But FBR say they also witnessed an encounter in which Karen troops and the Burmese army chatted and shook hands on the road. The Burmese troops are reported to have said, “You can go back to your farms and villages now” to which the Karen troops responded, “We cannot go back to our homes until you leave your camps and this area.”
Earlier this month, the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Burmese government signed a historic ceasefire agreement, immediately calling for a halt to hostilities on both sides. The deal has been received with caution by many who see Burma’s democratic reforms as a largely cosmetic effort to woo Western governments.
“This is very initial stage in the ceasefire process,” David Thackabaw, vice president of the KNU, told DVB. “There are many steps we still have to take to reach our final goal of establishing a real democracy.”
Human rights activists argue that even should the ceasefire hold, there will likely be a shift towards different types of human rights violations in the border regions, rather than a drastic reduction.
“If the ceasefire ends conflict, then we would expect to see abuses coming from armed conflict to change,” said Matt Finch from the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG). “But the abuses stemming from militarisation and development of natural resource extraction are unlikely to change, because the ceasefire has nothing to do with the root causes of those abuses.”
Since his inauguration in March last year, President Thein Sein has placed economic development at the heart of Burma’s policy agenda. In many rural areas, including Karen state, this has led to more large-scale industrial developments, including hydropower dams, mining operations and road constructions. Rights groups have reported associated abuses, including evictions, forced labour, coercion and violence as commonplace. Engrained abuses of power by the military and poor accountability mechanisms are cited as significant obstacles to progress.
“In many areas land grabbing is becoming the main problem,” Kweh Say, from Burma Issues, warned. “This could get even worse after the ceasefire, because there are no preparations on either side for restoring or resettling displaced villagers.” He warned that ending sanctions against natural resource investment was likely to aggravate these abuses further.
Human rights abuses are but some of the contentious issues that still need to be addressed in the coming rounds of talks between the government and ethnic armies, along with securing a nationwide ceasefire, de-militarisation and amending the controversial 2008 constitution, popularly slated as undemocratic.