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More Transparency Required Regarding Burma Army’s Operations

By Burma Partnership  •  April 29, 2014

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As documented on countless occasions by many local and international groups, the Burma Army has long been committing serious human rights abuses in ethnic areas of Burma, especially recently in Kachin State.  Such abuses include waging war against civilians, summary executions, torture and mutilations, rape and other sexual violence against women, men and children, arbitrary detention, destruction of homes and property, and the blocking of humanitarian access.  Such abuses terrorise local populations, undermine trust and confidence in the current peace process, and are illegal under international law.  Furthermore, many of these human rights abuses could also be classified as war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In January, Burma Campaign UK commented on the fact that the British government was providing training to the Burma Army against this backdrop of ongoing and grave human rights abuses.  According to Burma Campaign UK, at that point the British Ministry of Defence had spent £87,850 (almost US$150,000) on training the Burma Army without setting any preconditions relating to improving human rights or supporting democratic reform, and despite calls from many local groups to withhold such training.

What’s more, Burma Campaign UK has recently had to file an official complaint with the UK Information Commissioner in connection with the total failure of the Ministry of Defence to respond properly to a Freedom of Information request regarding the nature of the training that it has provided to the Burma Army.  According to Burma Campaign UK, the Ministry of Defence has resorted to various tactics, including appeals to “commercial confidentiality”, delays which contravene its own internal rules, and a good old-fashioned cold shoulder.

Yet the British government has claimed that all training relates to human rights and governance.  In which case, the refusal to provide information about the training is strange to say the least.  Delays, dismissals and obfuscations will only encourage observers to conclude that there is more to it than the British government claims.  Genuine transparency regarding such activities would enable all concerned parties – from Burma civil society organisations to British taxpayers – to make an informed decision as to whether British military support is helping or not; whether it is improving the human rights situation in places like Kachin State, or making it worse.  However, judging from the recent upsurge in aggression in Kachin State, at the very least it seems to be acting as a fig leaf for continued attacks on civilians.

Moreover, only a few days ago, at the UN Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called upon the Burma government to “to fully investigate and respond to current and historical human rights violations and abuses, including crimes of sexual violence”.  The Women’s League of Burma welcomed the report, which highlights the need for constitutional reform to bring the Burma Army under civilian oversight.  However, other organisations have said that it is time for an independent UN investigation rather than yet another flawed, corrupt and non-impartial internal investigation.

Again, transparency is the key.  Without transparency, everyone is kept in the dark, with growing fear, suspicion and doubt undermining the democratic reforms that have taken place thus far.  It is vital that the Burma Army earns the trust of the people by taking whatever steps are required to secure peace, democracy and prosperity throughout Burma.  However, it can only do so by being transparent about its operations and, in being transparent, by changing its approach.  By the same token, all relevant international players should support that process, by insisting on transparency and by upholding such values themselves.  Only with transparency can real progress be made towards a democratic and peaceful Burma whereby the army protects such reforms rather than undermining them, and plays an important role in genuinely guaranteeing the security of all people in Burma.

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