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More Displacement, More Abuses in Latest Burma Army Attacks

By Burma Partnership  •  April 26, 2016

Peace-TalksThe Burma Army is stepping up on its promise to “eliminate” the Arakan Army (AA) with an increase in the number and ferocity of military attacks in northern Arakan State. As ever, it is local communities who are feeling the brunt of the offensives as hundreds of villagers have been displaced and are also being subjected to forced labor by the Burma Army.

Starting with two ambush attacks on 16 April, 2016, during the Buddhist New Year celebrations in Rathedaung and Buthidaung Townships, up to 300 local villagers have been displaced. This is to add to the hundreds displaced during previous attacks at the end of 2015 in Kyauktaw Township, many of whom are still in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Furthermore, the Burma Army has been forcibly recruiting villagers to work as porters, a decades-long practice. In fact, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) set up a Commission of Inquiry in 1997 which found the “widespread and systematic” practice of forced labor by the Burma Army. Burma has ratified the core ILO Convention No. 29, ‘The Forced Labour Convention,’ and is thus obligated under international law to end this practice, not to utilize it.

The military offensives, the abuse of local populations by the Burma Army, and the need for humanitarian aid to displaced people can be seen throughout Burma. In Shan State, near the Chinese border, ethnic Kokang refugees “described how Burmese troops were continuing to commit abuses against civilians, including arbitrary arrest and torture, sexual violence, looting of property, and forced labour” according to research conducted by the Shan Human Rights Foundation, a local civil society organization documenting human rights abuses. Elsewhere in northern Shan State, the Burma Army has issued a written threat, ordering the Shan State Army – North to withdraw from two positions or face fresh assaults while attacks have also been reported near Laiza, Kachin State, against the Kachin Independence Army.

The 2015 elections and the coming to power of a National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government has not changed the continuation of the Burma Army’s military offensives, human rights abuses and displacement in ethnic areas. In Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s New Year speech she outlined how “the constitution needs to be one that will give birth to a genuine, federal democratic union.” This is of huge importance given that the 2008 Constitution grants the Burma Army far-reaching powers and institutionalizes the grievances that ethnic people of Burma have opposed, whether through arms or through other means, since independence. Furthermore, under the 2008 Constitution, the Burma Army is not accountable to a civilian government, nor is it accountable to civilian courts, granting it immunity to continue its abuses, as experienced by the Rakhine villagers forced to porter for the Burma Army troops.

Amending the 2008 Constitution is thus a key component of any sustainable peace agreement in Burma, and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to strive for inclusivity in future peace talks – something that was starkly missing in the previous Government’s strategy as key ethnic armed groups, including the AA, were excluded from signing a ‘nationwide ceasefire agreement.’

While transitional justice and mechanisms for seeking truth, accountability, and reconciliation for past abuses suffered must be part of a long-term peace agreement, in the immediate future, the Burma Army must stop its offensives and abuses, including these worrying instances of forced labor. The ILO has a mandate to investigate cases of forced labor in Burma, and complaints can be made to its liaison office in Rangoon. Civil society and communities who are seeking justice can use this mechanism while in turn, the ILO office has a duty to independently and effectively investigate such abuses and take action.

There is a new political context in Burma but despite the existence of an NLD-led Government the Burma Army remains unreformed, abusive, and unaccountable. The Burma Army must demonstrate a commitment to democracy by not standing in the way of NLD-led constitutional amendments that places the military under civilian rule, amendments that must be a priority for the NLD. In turn, the international community needs to support this process of constitutional amendment as a means to ending the abuses committed by the Burma Army, and forging a sustainable peace in Burma.

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