A damning new report from Amnesty International paints a picture of northern Burma in which the military continues to act with impunity, accused of human rights abuses tantamount to war crimes just weeks after the appointment of a UN fact-finding mission to probe such concerns.
Focused on a period from mid-2016 to May 2017, the report documents abuses by both government troops and ethnic armed groups that it says could amount to war crimes, though the Burma Army is facing the brunt of the finger-pointing.
Extrajudicial killings, torture, indiscriminate shelling, and forced conscription and portering are among the accusations that the report lays at the boots of the Burma Army.
“The government of [State Counsellor] Aung Sang Suu Kyi has staked its legacy on ending the ethnic armed conflicts that have persisted for decades … [but] the Myanmar Army’s treatment of civilians from ethnic minorities during the ongoing conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan States undermines such efforts, breeding resentment against the government and its armed forces,” says the report.
“Many civilians in northern Myanmar, as well as experts who have monitored the situation for years, fear the conflict is intensifying — and that violations of human rights and humanitarian law could worsen. To avoid such a situation, accountability and respect for human rights need to be at the centre of the Myanmar government’s agenda.”
Amnesty conducted three field visits this year, over a period from March to May. The London-based human rights advocacy group interviewed more than 140 people in the course of its research, “including victims and direct witnesses to violations of the laws of war; local and international humanitarian officials; human rights defenders; and community leaders.”
The Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Kachin Independence Army, two of the main actors involved in the conflicts in Burma’s north, defended the legality of their conduct when contacted by Amnesty. The government did not respond to questions from the organisation.
“The formal letter that we addressed to the State Counsellor’s Office was copied by fax to other relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Defence, which remains under the military’s control. We received confirmation of delivery but no response,” Matthew Wells, senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, told DVB.
President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
The Amnesty report said that in addition to being victims of several documented human rights violations, civilians in Kachin and northern Shan states have suffered as humanitarian access to displaced populations has been curbed over the past year.
According to the report, “A senior humanitarian official said that the situation was more relaxed under the former [President] Thein Sein government than it is today, under Aung San Suu Kyi’s government. ‘It’s clear the military is squeezing the population,’ he said. ‘It’s the politicization of aid.’”
The Burma Army’s 33rd and 99th Light Infantry Divisions were singled out as recurrent perpetrators of human rights abuses in Kachin and northern Shan States.
In one particularly troubling incident recounted in the Amnesty report, 18 men were allegedly led away by Burma Army soldiers and killed. Two witnesses said they heard gunshots after the men were taken and later discovered two graves in which the charred remains of the victims’ bodies were discovered.
“They were villagers, not connected to [a fighting group],” the report quotes one of the witnesses to the alleged killings as saying. “They were married men with children, farmers.”
Occurring in the wake of hostilities between the Burma Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army in November, the report says the killings outside Nam Hkye Ho village, in Shan State, suggested “that the massacre may have been retribution or collective punishment for the villagers’ perceived support of the [MNDAA] group.”
In March, the UN Human Rights Council approved the formation of an independent fact-finding mission to probe allegations of recent human rights abuses in Burma, with a focus on — but not limited to — security forces’ operations in northern Arakan State, where the military is accused of serious misconduct in its crackdown on Rohingya militants since October. On 30 May, the president of the UN Human Rights Council appointed three experts to lead the fact-finding mission.
“The ongoing conflicts in northern Myanmar have received too little attention outside the country, and should be prioritized as part of investigative efforts going forward,” said Wells, adding that the Amnesty report would be shared with relevant UN personnel and that the organisation would “actively encourage them to follow up on our report, including by investigating specific cases we raise.”
But Suu Kyi, speaking at a press conference with the Swedish prime minister in Stockholm on Monday, cast further doubt on her government’s willingness to cooperate with the fact-finding mission — at least in northern Arakan State.
“A fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations would not have helped the situation. It would have created greater hostility between the different [Muslim and Buddhist] communities,” she said, addressing a reporter whose question focused on the Rohingya aspect of the probe and using a verb tense that seemingly suggested there was still some question as to whether a UN investigation would go forward.
“So the reason why we disassociated ourselves from the resolution that appointed the fact-finding mission was because we did not feel it was in keeping with the needs of the region, in which we are trying to establish harmony and understanding, and to remove the fears that have kept the two communities apart for so long.”
Suu Kyi did not signal whether she considered an independent, international probe into the conflicts in northern Burma to be similarly inappropriate.
Burma has “disassociated” itself from the resolution establishing the fact-finding mission, and the extent to which the government will cooperate with the probe — if at all — remains an open question.
“We’re not sure what posture the government will take at this point,” Matthew Smith, director of the human rights advocacy group Fortify Rights, told DVB late last month. “Denying appointed experts access to the country will only intensify pressure on the situation. If the government is serious about ending violations, it would cooperate with the mission and do everything in its power to address the problems. That said, denied access won’t prevent the mission from carrying out the mandate.”
While the situation in northern Arakan State has garnered the bulk of international media attention since October, when Rohingya militants killed nine officers in attacks on border police posts, Kachin and Shan states have also long been fertile grounds for human rights monitors.
Several advocacy groups have worked for years to document army misconduct in the region, where ethnic armed groups, government-backed militias and the military all operate across sometimes competing territories. Shan State’s ignominious status as the centre of opium production in Burma — the world’s second-largest producer of the drug — further complicates dynamics, injecting profit motive into a conflict-torn arena where roughly one in 10 households in the state’s north are “directly involved in opium poppy cultivation,” according to a UN survey of nearly 600 villages released in March.
Wells said the latest Amnesty report further highlights the need for constitutional reform that would bring Burma’s military under civilian control, a point that was included in the March resolution establishing the UN fact-finding mission.
“The sad reality is that many of our recent findings — army torture, extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate shelling — could just have easily been found in an Amnesty report written while Myanmar was under military rule,” he said. “Despite much touted reforms in the country, the institution in most desperate need of change stubbornly refuses to do so.
“Until the military is brought under civilian control, and its soldiers held to account, the cycle of violence will continue, and civilians will bear the brunt.”