Myanmar's military accused of torture as it reasserts political power

GlobalPost
A man prepares dinner in the communal kitchen at the Jan Mai Kawng Internal Displacement Camp in which is sponsored by the Kachin Baptist Church in Myitkyina, Myanmar on June 6, 2014. The fighting between the Burmese Military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has been going on for three years.
Lauren DeCicca

Myanmar opposition leader and former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi on Monday shot down a warning against using language in rallies that “challenges the army” leading up to the country’s 2015 parliamentary elections.

Since becoming a lawmaker, Suu Kyi has been working to amend the military-drafted constitution that, in its current state, blocks her from attaining the presidency while also giving the military great influence over the governing body. A parliamentary committee voted last week against changing the constitution.

"It is not the work of (the) elections commission to warn me or other leaders of what we should say or what we should not say," she said.

Her condemnation of the warning came on the same day that the government issued another warning against free speech, threatening “to expel students from technological colleges and institutes who participate in political activities that lead to ‘unrest.’"

Some are seeing the coming elections as a test of whether the army — for whom a quarter of seats in parliament are reserved, unelected — will loosen its grasp over the government.

Just last week, however, Bangkok-based human rights group Fortify Rights released a report that shows the military may not be so willing to let go of power, especially as it continues to wage war against ethnic groups.

The organization’s findings point to evidence that Myanmar’s security forces have "systematically" tortured civilians from an ethnic minority in the Kachin State — the country’s northernmost territory, which runs along the Chinese border.

The report documents the alleged torture of more than 60 victims and says those targeted by government security forces were “perceived” to be affiliated with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) — the ethnic rebel group that has been fighting Myanmar's Army since the 1960s.

More from GlobalPost: A Burmese Journey

Fortify Rights said a 17-year ceasefire agreement between government and guerrilla forces signed in 1994 ended in June 2011, when “three fully armed Myanmar Army soldiers” entered KIA territory, unannounced, violating the terms of the ceasefire.

“This [ceasefire agreement] happened when other ethnic armies in the country were in the thick of war against the military dictatorship of the time,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “Now the tables have turned. Most other non-state armies have been negotiating ceasefires with the government while the KIA and Myanmar Army have been at war. It’d be naïve to think this wasn’t carefully planned.”

The testimonies of 78 victims and family members of victims spoke in detail about having wire tied around their necks, hands and feet, being beaten, stabbed, or having bamboo place on their shins, which security forces then stood or jumped on.

The report also describes acts of psychological torture, whereby some detainees were told to dig their own graves and others were made to lick their own blood off the ground after torture sessions. Some also claimed they had experienced sexual abuse.

RIGHTS spoke with Matthew Smith to better understand what the landscape of the conflict looks like. Below is a transcript of that email exchange, with minor cuts for the purposes of length.

RIGHTS: In a nutshell, tell us about the conflict between Myanmar's security forces and the KIA. What is happening in the current (renewed) state of conflict?

MATTHEW SMITH: Three years ago, the KIA, the northern commander of the Myanmar Army, and Chinese investors were involved in negotiations around the Taping Dam, a hydropower project near Sang Gang village in Kachin State. Those negotiations failed and shortly thereafter the conflict began in the area surrounding the dam. From our perspective, it initially appeared as though the Myanmar Army was simply attempting to gain control of that area surrounding the dam but it wasn’t long before the war spread throughout Kachin State and then into northern Shan State, near the location of multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipelines to China and other economic interests. Fighting has since occurred near multi-billion dollar jade deposits, lucrative logging and trade routes to China, and sites of other mineral deposits. There is a lot at stake.

Regardless of the drivers of the conflict, we’ve documented how the Myanmar Army routinely flouts the laws of war. Three years ago I went to Kachin State and collected evidence of Myanmar Army soldiers opening fire on Kachin civilians and forcibly displacing them. Today we’re still documenting attacks on civilians, forced labor, pillaging, the destruction of homes and churches, and other abuses. Both parties to the conflict continue to use child soldiers and both are laying landmines. Our report released last week documents the widespread and systematic use of torture by the Myanmar Army, Myanmar Police Force, and Military Intelligence.

These abuses are being perpetrated with complete impunity.

R: What role does religion play here? There has been much international focus on Myanmar's Buddhist nationalist movement and the conflict between Buddhists and Muslims, and we know the Kachin are predominantly Christian. Is this another fragment in a larger problem with sentiments like those seen in the 969 movement?

MS: Religion is certainly a factor in the conflict but it’s not a driving force. Kachin Christians are suffering the brunt of abuses, in some cases because they are Christian, but at its core this war is not a war against Christianity and we wouldn’t liken in to the 969 Movement. This is an armed conflict between two armies in which state security forces are carrying out abuses against Kachin Christians. That said, we’ve documented the destruction of churches by the army and anti-Christian persecutory language against Kachin civilians during horrendous torture sessions. It’s clear from these abuses that religion is a factor in the way in which this war is being carried out.

Many Kachin are watching the 969 movement closely and they’re reasonably concerned. 969 leaders preach a type of extremism that can easily apply to other religious groups. And indeed some of the legislation proposed by supporters of 969, such as the religious conversion law, will infringe on the rights of ethnic Christians and some Kachin have been outspoken against these moves.

R: President Thein Sein’s spokesman, Ye Htut, said your report does not provide any concrete evidence and that if you did have concrete evidence, you could "send it to the government and the government will investigate thoroughly and punish (offenders) if we find they've committed these crimes." How would you respond?

MS: The fact of the matter is that we did send the report to the government, to Ye Htut personally, prior to publication. We interviewed 78 people for this report, including survivors of torture and their families, and witnesses and survivors of other abuses committed by state security forces. We documented torture in villages, combat zones and detention centers by members of three branches of security forces — the army, police and military intelligence. In some cases, we collected photographic evidence of torture and killings, only some of which was published.

The response from the office of the president demonstrates some fundamental misunderstandings about combatting impunity and ending abuses. We’ve collected serious allegations of torture, directly from survivors of torture, and we’ve pieced together their experience through eyewitness testimony. We’re calling for an immediate and thorough investigation. Ye Htut’s kneejerk response is that our findings aren’t “concrete evidence,” but what he’s really saying is that these abuses aren’t happening, and that’s what’s most concerning. He’s saying this in the absence of any sort of official investigation.

We employ international best practices in documenting abuses, and in this case we conducted research according to the Istanbul Protocol, which is the United Nations’ framework for credibly and ethically documenting torture.

If Ye Htut wants “concrete evidence” he should act on our report’s first recommendation. The government of Thein Sein should immediately support an independent investigation with international and Myanmar partners, and the findings should be subjected to an impartial court.

R: How does this fit into or alongside other ethnic conflicts throughout Myanmar, in which government or security forces are involved, and for which, in 16 cases, it is seeking ceasefire agreements?

MS: The situation in Rakhine State is very different from the situation in Kachin State, but at its core there are some similarities. Both situations involve ethnic groups that have faced human rights abuses for decades. Both Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State faced severe abuses under ethnic Burman dominated dictatorships and under the current government. The Rakhine would place the beginning of their struggle all the way back to 1784, when Burman-led forces overthrew the Arakan [Rakhine] Kingdom. Similarly, the Kachin have been struggling against the central government and Burman domination since at least the ‘60s. There is a high level of bitterness toward the Burman-majority led institutions in both places.

In Kachin and Rakhine, there have been a combined 250,000 people relegated to internally displaced person camps since 2011, and the authorities have obstructed the delivery of humanitarian aid in both places. On top of that, an unknown number of people from each state have fled the country. While the Rohingya flight from Myanmar has been widely reported, a more untold story involves thousands of Kachin who have made their way to China, Malaysia and Thailand since the war began.

R: What does this mean for Myanmar's continued development following the 2011 shift from military junta to quasi-civilian government?

MS: The Myanmar Army’s playbook in ethnic states evidently hasn’t changed. It’s clear from our research that the behavior of soldiers and commanders with respect to civilians and the laws of war has been unaffected by broader political changes taking place in the country. In the last three years, Army battalions have committed abuses that we believe amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, and similar abuses have been committed with impunity for decades. If the country is going to move forward, ongoing abuses should be stopped immediately and past abuses should be dealt with accordingly. Perpetrators of abuse should be held accountable, regardless of rank or position, and the international community should redouble its support for Myanmar’s human rights defenders.