Five years after the collapse of a ceasefire agreement in northern Burma’s Kachin State plunged the region into renewed conflict, rights groups are calling on the country’s new government to address the impact of fighting on the local civilian population.
In a joint statement released on Thursday, the groups issued a “call for peace, justice, and accountability in Kachin State”, where fighting between the Burmese military and the Kachin Independence Army has displaced more than 100,000 civilians over the past five years.
The statement, signed by 130 community-based and international organisations, accuses Burma’s armed forces of committing severe human rights abuses and urges the military and new civilian-led government to “end the endemic culture of impunity once and for all”.
According to Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights, rights violations continue to receive very little attention from the government.
“There has been near complete impunity for human right abuses,” he told DVB by phone on Thursday. “There’s been no accountability, no justice, no redress for directly affected communities.”
Since the conflict began, local Kachin community groups have documented extrajudicial killings, torture, forced labor, rape and sexual violence, arbitrary detention, attacks on civilians and non-military targets, and pillaging of property.
In one of the most prominent cases, the military continues to refuse to cooperate with an investigation into the murder last year of two volunteer teachers who were found dead in their shared room after allegedly being raped by soldiers stationed in the village of Kawng Hka.
Meanwhile, for the tens of thousands of villagers from Kachin State and northern Shan State who have been forced to flee the violence, conditions in camps remains dire, according to Khin Ohmar, coordinator of the Thailand-based organisation Burma Partnership.
At the very least, she said, the government should immediately allow unrestricted humanitarian access to displaced communities.
“That could be the very little, and yet very significant, first step, because it is already the rainy season, so you can imagine the condition in the camps,” she told DVB.
Speaking from Seng Aung displacement camp, displaced villager Roi Seng told DVB that food aid of rice, oil, salt was previously provided at the camps but now the minimum ration of rice has also come to a halt. “We have a great deal of concerns for the elderly and children among us and hope we can go back home soon.”
Although many want to return home as soon as possible, Roi Seng said it’s not possible until peace is achieved and the military units are removed from the village.
She urged the new government to take immediate action, stating “we are ethnic nationalities of this country and we also want to enjoy equal citizenship and human rights.”
According to Smith, however, even addressing the humanitarian needs of displaced civilians could run up against resistance from the country’s powerful military, which still has the final say in matters of national security.
“In terms of military strategy, it’s been suggested that the authorities have denied humanitarian aid as a way to weaken the ethnic armed groups,” he said, referring to restrictions on access to camps for displaced villagers.
Previous attempts by rights groups to pressure the government to address specific concerns about the Burmese military’s conduct of the war in Kachin State have met with limited success.
However, there are hopes that Burma’s new government, which has embarked on an ambitious plan to achieve a nationwide peace agreement with the country’s many ethnic armed groups, will be more responsive to the push to protect civilians caught up in the conflict.