Since June 2011, the Burmese government has committed serious abuses and blocked humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians during the fighting in northern Kachin State, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report released today. Some 75,000 ethnic Kachin displaced persons and refugees are in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter, the organization said.
Their 83-page report, Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State, describes how the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations and raped women.
“The Burmese army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin State while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at HRW. “Both the army and Kachin rebels need to act to prevent a bad situation for civilians from getting even worse.”
The army has also used anti-personnel mines and forced laborers on the front lines, including children as young as 14. One such child soldier named Maru P., age 16, told HRW on November 14, 2011: “We had to learn how to shoot, how to walk, how to live, how to behave and live in the jungle, and other things. It [basic training] was three months long. There were over 200 in the training. Most were older but I had some friends my age in the training…. I don’t have my own gun and cannot carry one because they think I am too young. I mostly prepare meals for officers and send letters back and forth.”
Displaced Kachin civilians described being forced to work on the front lines for the Burmese army, enduring torture, and being fired upon by soldiers. Burmese troops have deliberately and indiscriminately attacked Kachin civilians with small arms and mortars, HRW found.
HRW travelled twice to areas in Kachin State in 2011, visiting nine camps for internally displaced persons and areas in China’s Yunnan province where refugees have fled, and has continued to monitor the situation. The report is based on more than 100 interviews with displaced persons, refugees, and victims of abuses, as well as Kachin rebels, Burmese army deserters, and relief workers.
The Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) need to take effective measures to end abuses by their forces, ensure humanitarian access, and permit an independent international mechanism to investigate abuses by all sides, HRW said.
Renewed Burmese army operations against the Kachin Independence Army began in June in a contested area surrounding a Chinese-led hydropower dam, ending 17 years of ceasefire between the government and Kachin insurgents.
The organization also found evidence of rape by Burmese soldiers.
One man, forced to porter for the army for 19 days, told HRW he witnessed the repeated rape of two Kachin women: “Soldiers would come and take the women and bring them from tent to tent. We were so afraid and we couldn’t watch the whole night. The next morning, the women couldn’t walk right. They seemed like they were in pain. They walked hunched over. And they were crying.”
The Kachin Independence Army has also been involved in serious abuses, including using child soldiers and antipersonnel mines, Human Rights Watch said. Both sides’ use of mines, which do not discriminate between combatants and civilians, will complicate the safe return of displaced civilians to their villages when hostilities cease.
HRW called on the Burmese government to ask the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Burma with a standard protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate.
Burma’s newly created National Human Rights Commission has not played an effective role in monitoring abuses in Kachin State, HRW said. In February 2012, the commission’s chairman, Win Mra, announced that the commission would not investigate allegations of abuses in the country’s ethnic armed conflict areas due to the government’s efforts to negotiate ceasefires.
“Concerned governments should urgently support an independent international mechanism to investigate abuses by all sides to the conflict in Kachin State and in other ethnic areas,” Pearson said. “An objective investigation into abuses in Burma’s ethnic areas won’t happen unless the UN is involved, and such an effort can help deter future abuses.”
Of the 75,000 Kachin civilians displaced since June, at least 45,000 have sought refuge in 30 camps for internally displaced persons in Kachin Independence Army-controlled territory along the Burma-China border. The Burmese government has only granted UN agencies access to this area once, in December. Even then, UN agencies were not able to visit several areas where tens of thousands of displaced persons reside. In areas it controls, the Kachin Independence Army and networks of local Kachin organizations have tried to meet growing humanitarian needs, but international support for civilian-relief organizations operating out of Kachin State has been sporadic and inadequate.
Humanitarian needs of displaced persons in Kachin State include food and other necessities, such as medicine, blankets, warm clothing, firewood and fuel, and adequate shelter.
The worsening situation in Kachin State contrasts starkly with hopeful human rights developments in lowland Burma in recent months, including the release of prominent political prisoners, a spate of legal reforms, and greater media freedom. In by-elections scheduled for April 1, the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will run for a seat in the national parliament.
“There’s still a long way to go before the people of Burma, particularly those in conflict areas, benefit from recent promises of reform,” Pearson said. “The international community should not become complacent about the serious human rights violations still plaguing Burma.”