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Burma: Army Committing Abuses in Kachin State

By Human Rights Watch  •  October 18, 2011

Burma’s armed forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians in renewed fighting in Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said today. Since hostilities began over five months ago against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, which has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 30,000 Kachin civilians.

On September 30, 2011, Burma’s President Thein Sein suspended a controversial US$3.6 billion hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, which appears to have been one of several factors in the renewed hostilities between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Chinese-financed project was suspended after growing dissent in Burma over its current and potential environmental and social impacts.

“Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tens of thousands of people have fled through the mountains and jungle at the height of the rainy season, driven away by fear of army attacks.”

Fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA, Burma’s second largest ethnic armed group, began on June 9, ending 17 years of ceasefire. The Burmese army first attacked a strategic KIA post at the location of another Chinese-led hydropower dam on the Taping River in Momauk township, Human Rights Watch said. The army subsequently launched a major offensive and moved in hundreds of troops to areas formerly controlled by the KIA. There have since been failed ceasefire talks and an unconfirmed number of skirmishes, ambushes, and battles involving heavy mortar shelling. The KIA subsequently destroyed several road and railway bridges to frustrate the Burmese army’s advance and supply lines. The KIA reportedly began conscripting able-bodied men and women aged 18 to 55 for a two-month military training, in anticipation of protracted fighting.

Human Rights Watch conducted a fact-finding mission to the conflict areas in Kachin State in July and August, visiting abandoned villages and eight remote camps of internally displaced persons. Witnesses described serious abuses committed by Burmese soldiers, including killings and attacks on civilians, pillaging of villages, and the unlawful use of forced labor.

Fearing abuses from the Burmese army, tens of thousands of Kachin fled their villages, Human Rights Watch said. Before arriving at displaced persons camps in KIA controlled areas, several thousand villagers hid from the Burmese army in the jungle, in some cases for a month after the fighting began. Those who were able to visit their homes to get provisions told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers had occupied their villages and confiscated their property and belongings. Some described being held by Burmese soldiers, who interrogated them harshly for information about the KIA, including by threatening to kill them. Interrogations were particularly menacing for villagers who spoke Kachin dialects and very little Burmese.

Human Rights Watch documented the killings of three Kachin civilians by Burmese soldiers in June and is investigating credible allegations of other killings. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that on June 15, Burmese army forces entered Hang Htak village in Man Je township searching for suspected associates of the KIA. A Burmese soldier shot and killed a 52-year-old woman and her 4-year-old grandson in their home at close range as they tried to flee. On June 17, credible local sources told Human Rights Watch that a group of soldiers allegedly shot and killed Nhkum Zau Bawk, a farmer and day laborer, in Kawng Gat Ban Ma village as he stood unarmed with a group of friends at a cemetery. Local authorities reportedly provided financial compensation to the man’s family, but no legal action was taken against the perpetrator.

According to the September 2011 report to the United Nations General Assembly by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Thomas Ojea Quintana, “Allegations of abuses against civilian populations throughout Kachin State include reports of 18 women and girls having been gang-raped by army soldiers, and of four of those victims being subsequently killed.” While Human Rights Watch did not speak to any victims or witnesses of rape, community members confirmed such abuses had occurred.

Several people told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers fired on them as they were fleeing their village. For instance, in early June, Burmese soldiers twice fired on a 62-year-old Kachin woman and her three young grandchildren in Sang Gang village. She told Human Rights Watch, “In the morning when we were cooking rice, we heard gunfire and we left our food and went to the field, looking into the village the whole day before we fled. When we ran the soldiers shot at us. We were really afraid. We just ran and hid.” She said that after two days in the jungle without basic provisions, they decided to return home to get food, at which point they were fired upon a second time. “We had already left the house and were on our way out of the village … and the soldiers opened fire on us [again],” she said. “No one was hit. When the soldier opened fire it made me shake and I didn’t know what to do. We just ran.”

Under the laws of war applicable in conflict areas in Burma, all sides are prohibited from mistreating persons in their custody, targeting civilians, or pillaging homes and other civilian property.

The Burmese army has unlawfully used Kachin civilians for forced labor, which has long been a serious problem in Burma’s ethnic areas, Human Rights Watch said. Five civilians told Human Rights Watch that in recent months they had been forced to work for the military without compensation; several others knew of family or friends who had had to do so. A 36-year-old mother of six children who fled Lusupa village, a government-controlled area, told Human Rights Watch how she and other Kachin villagers, including children as young as 14, had been commonly forced to porter for the Burmese army. She said that her husband, who remained in their village to tend their crops and check on their home and belongings, was forced to carry out labor for the army twice, in late June and mid-July.

The laws of war prohibit the use of uncompensated or abusive forced labor, including work in combat areas.

Many Kachin recounted previous abuses at the hands of the Burmese army. A 58-year-old Kachin farmer, who said all his possessions had been taken by the Burmese army, told Human Rights Watch: “We lost our homes and properties to the Burmese soldiers several times. That is why I don’t have hope in this situation.”

Recent abuses in Kachin State highlight the importance of establishing a United Nations commission of inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Burma, Human Rights Watch said. The UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, first called for a commission of inquiry in March 2010, and to date 16 countries have publically confirmed their support for the initiative, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others, as well as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

“Pronouncements of political reform in Burma do not seem to have reached the army in Kachin State,” Pearson said. “Ongoing abuses starkly demonstrate that until real steps are taken towards accountability, including an international commission of inquiry, minorities such as the Kachin will be a grave risk.”

For additional information on recent abuses in Kachin State see immediately below or click here: http://www.hrw.org/en/node/102409#Section1

To view the Human Rights Watch statement, “Q & A on an International Commission of Inquiry” please visit: http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/08/burma-human-rights-watch-statement-upr-outcome-report

To view the Human Rights Watch press release, “Burma: Army Should Act to End Abuses” please visit: http://www.hrw.org/news/2011/03/24/burma-army-should-act-end-abuses

For more information, please contact:
In London, Brad Adams (English): +44-7908-728333 (mobile); or adamsb@hrw.org
In New York, Elaine Pearson (English): +1-212-216-1213; +1-646-291-7169 (mobile); or pearsoe@hrw.org
In Washington, DC, Tom Malinowski (English): +1-202-612-4358; +1-202-309-3551 (mobile); or malinot@hrw.org
In Brussels, Reed Brody (English, French, Portuguese, Spanish): +32-498-625786 (mobile); or brodyr@hrw.org
In Bangkok, Dave Mathieson (English): +66-877-011-905 (mobile); or mathied@hrw.org
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This post is in: Crimes Against Humanity, Press Release

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