Myanmar Army’s Offensive in Karen State Threatens to Expand Conflict

A continued Burma military offensive into the contested Hat Gyi dam area threatens to ignite fighting with the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and imperils a four-year-old ceasefire, Karen Rivers Watch said Thursday.

According to the organization, the latest news on the ground is that the Myanmar Army is stationing troops in villages along the Salween River, upstream from the Hat Gyi Dam site. Villagers told Karen Rivers Watch, a network of Karen community-based organizations working to protect the Salween River, that the Border Guard Force (BGF) and Myanmar Army told them to leave their villages near Hat Gyi Dam. Earlier this month, orders to evacuate the Mae Tha Waw dam access road were followed by BGF attacks against the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) splinter group.

KNLA sources told Karen Rivers Watch there are strong indications that the Myanmar military is seeking to expand and reinforce its territorial control in Karen State in order to secure the area around the controversial Hat Gyi Dam site, which is partially controlled by the KNLA. This includes the recently captured access road necessary for transporting dam construction materials from the Thai border. The long-delayed Hat Gyi Dam, planned by Chinese and Thai companies primarily for electricity export to Thailand, will flood large areas and disrupt the free flowing Salween River, which millions of people depend on.

“In order to implement the plan for Hat Gyi Dam, the Burmese and BGF must have full control of the road and the surrounding areas,” said Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh, second in command of the KNLA.

While the Burmese government and Karen leaders continue holding historic peace talks, recent outbreaks of fighting between the Myanmar Army-supported Border Guard Force and the DKBA splinter group in Karen State throws into doubt hopes that civil war victims could finally go home. In early September, over 5,000 villagers living east and south of the proposed Hat Gyi dam site were forced to flee their homes.

Many media reports tend to portray the conflict as inter-ethnic fighting. Karen leaders and villagers, on the other hand, see this as a continuation of the Myanmar Army’s divide and rule strategy. The Myanmar Army is using the pretense of eliminating the DKBA splinter group to take control of more Karen areas around the Hat Gyi Dam site, says Karen Rivers Watch.

So far, the KNU/KNLA, the largest Karen armed organization and a ceasefire signatory, has not been drawn into the most recent fighting. However, as the Myanmar Army advances further towards KNLA territory, that could change. Gen. Saw Johnny, KNLA Commander-in-Chief, warned the Myanmar Army, “If you cross the line [into our territory], there will be fighting.” But Gen. Saw Johnny went on to reiterate that the KNU is committed to the national peace process, stating, “We want to solve this conflict by peaceful means.”

Earlier on September 10th, the BGF demanded that the KNLA grant the BGF control of five separate locations along the western side of the Salween River. The five areas include territory adjacent to the Toh T’Bah Wai, Klaw Tae Hta, P’Tae Hta, Yaw Ma Hta and Mae Lah villages, all located around the Hat Gyi dam site. The KNLA refused, invoking the NCA terms.

Gen. Baw Kyaw Heh noted “the DKBA does not operate in the five areas in our 5th Brigade territory that were demanded by BGF.” The former DKBA camps were restricted to 7th Brigade territory. The movement of BGF and Myanmar Army troops to fortify positions on western sections of the Salween would contradict the terms of the NCA, and would only escalate tensions and increase the risk of armed conflict.

The KNU Executive Committee have all agreed on opposing any mega development project until a stable peace has been achieved. Gen. Saw Johnny, Commander-in-Chief of the KNLA, stated in no unclear terms, “if they plan to build the dam, we will oppose it.”

The Myanmar military’s actions only serve to further the aims of corporate dam developers from Thailand and China, which aim to export electricity and divert water from the Hat Gyi Dam to Thailand. “The central government’s claimed benefits of hydropower development will not reach the people of the Salween River basin, or even the people of Burma,” says Saw Tha Poe, coordinator for Karen Rivers Watch. “The land and people of a democratic Burma should not have to suffer for the sake of a few big companies and shopping malls.”

Militarization for corporate infrastructure development will only worsen conflict in Karen State, jeopardizing the ongoing peace process and preventing the return of displaced peoples, warns Karen Rivers Watch. “Economic development that requires violence against ethnic people, and marginalizes their voices and lives, cannot be the way forward for a democratic Myanmar,’’ the group says.

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Vietnam Criminalizes Peaceful Dissent Once Again

Vietnam must end the ongoing repression of peaceful dissent, repeal its repressive laws and immediately release all political prisoners, rights groups said Thursday. The call followed the imprisonment of three government critics in three days.

Amnesty InternationalFIDH and the Vietnamese Committee for Human Rights (VCHR) condemn Vietnam’s continuing failure to respect, protect, promote and fulfill the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, contrary to its obligations as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). According to VCHR, Vietnam holds about 130 political prisoners – the largest number among Southeast Asian countries.

“Vietnam’s relentless persecution of government critics using repressive laws and kangaroo courts shows that compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations ranks at the bottom of Hanoi’s priorities,” said FIDH President Dimitris Christopoulos.

On Thursday, the People’s Supreme Court in Hanoi upheld a lower court’s conviction of blogger Nguyen Huu Vinh and his assistant Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy for “abusing democratic freedoms to harm the interests of the State” under Article 258 of the Criminal Code and sentenced them to five and three years in prison respectively. The trial was held behind closed doors. In addition, Vinh’s wife, Le Thi Minh Ha, has not been allowed to visit him in prison for the past five months.

Nguyen Huu Vinh and Nguyen Thi Minh Thuy were arrested on May 5th 2014 and accused of “publishing online articles with bad contents and misleading information to lower the prestige and create public distrust of government offices, social organizations, and citizens.” On March 23rd 2016, a People’s Court in Hanoi sentenced the two to five and three years in prison respectively.

Vietnamese authorities have repeatedly used legislation inconsistent with Vietnam’s obligations under international law to suppress the right to freedom of opinion and expression and to detain government critics.

“Vietnam’s protracted refusal to repeal its repressive laws and release all political prisoners shows it has absolutely no intention of respecting fundamental human rights. Hanoi’s repression must be met by stronger international condemnation, not friendly overtures,” said VCHR President Vo Van Ai.

Vietnam has criminalized peaceful protest yet again by convicting Can Thi Theu, a well-known land rights activist, by a court in Hanoi on September 20th. She was sentenced to 20 months in prison on charges of “disturbing public order” under Article 245 of the 1999 Penal Code.

Dozens of people who went to Dong Da district People’s Court to support Can Thi Theu were also arrested outside, including her son Trinh Ba Phuong, and taken to a police station in Ha Dong district; others who went to the police station to call for their release were also arrested. They were all released several hours later, with reports that some had been beaten.

Can Thi Theu was arrested at home on June 10th 2016 on accusations of posting photos on her Facebook page inciting protests against reclamation of land in Duong Noi, Ha Dong district of Hanoi, and also “inciting” a boycott of the May 2016 elections for the National Assembly. She is a veteran campaigner for the rights of farmers whose land has been confiscated by the authorities with unfair compensation. Her own family farm was confiscated in 2007. Following her arrest, Can Thi Theu went on hunger strike for 13 days in protest.

This is now the second time in two years that Can Thi Theu faces imprisonment. She was previously arrested in April 2014 and imprisoned for 15 months for “activities against public officials” under Article 257 of the 1999 Penal Code, for allegedly leading protests in Duong Noi.

Amnesty International called on Vietnam to quash the ruling and to cease their continuing intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders and activists. The authorities should immediately end the misuse of the legal and criminal justice system to prevent the effective enjoyment of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country.

Amnesty International has documented at least 82 prisoners of conscience in Vietnam, either convicted after unfair trials and serving long sentences, or held in pre-trial detention solely for exercising their human rights. They include bloggers, labor and land rights activists, political activists, ethnic and religious minorities and advocates for human rights and social justice.

Prisoners of conscience in Vietnam are at risk of enforced disappearances; prolonged periods of incommunicado detention and solitary confinement; the infliction of severe physical pain and suffering; the withholding of medical treatment and punitive prison transfers.

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China Must End Evictions, Demolition of Tibetan Buddhist Centers


Chinese authorities are reportedly forcing at least 1,000 religious adherents to withdraw from two major Tibetan Buddhist institutions, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The government should resolve genuine safety and health issues at the Buddhist institutions without infringing on the rights to religious belief and freedom of movement.

“The authorities’ strategy of demolitions, expulsions, threats and restrictions on religious practice is clear-cut evidence of an attack on religious freedom, not the actions of a genuinely concerned government trying to address a housing problem,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

The evictions follow demolitions in late July at the Tibetan Buddhist institute Larung Gar in Sichuan province. The demolitions, which the authorities said were necessary in order to carry out “correction and rectification,” reportedly prompted three suicides.

At least half of the more than 10,000 monks and nuns at Larung Gar, believed to be the largest Buddhist teaching institution in the world, face eviction following the demolition of numerous residences. The authorities have also pressured family members of certain nuns at Larung Gar and Yachen Gar, another major religious institute, to summon their relatives home or face punishment, Human Rights Watch said.

Since mass demolitions began at Larung Gar, the monastery’s leaders have appealed to residents to avoid confrontations with government-employed demolition crews.

However, three nuns at Larung Gar committed suicide in late July or early August in protest of the mass demolitions. Two of the nuns, Rinzin Drolma and Tsering Drolma, left notes referring to the demolitions or to government “harassment,” according to several media reports.

During the first week after the demolitions began, government workers at Larung Gar reportedly demolished 600 of the nuns’ cabins and homes, and since then an estimated 2,000 total dwellings have been removed. Before the demolitions began, an estimated 1,500 police and paramilitary troops were moved to nearby villages and towns.

The authorities have banned tourists from visiting Larung Gar and local residents from taking photographs or video of the demolitions. Those who have sent images or information abroad have come under investigation from the authorities. Images of the demolitions published in early August show some hillsides covered with debris, with no standing structures.

The threat facing residents at Larung Gar stems from a local government order to the monastery instructing it to reduce the number of monks and nuns to a total of 5,000 by September 2017. This means that at least 5,000 other residents – likely several times that figure – will be forced to leave, whether or not their housing survives.

So far the demolitions at Larung Gar have focused on the homes of nuns, apparently because they are presumed less likely to put up active resistance. Although some nuns will be allowed to move into new solid-structure dormitories built by the monastery, it is not yet clear how many will be allowed to stay. One report claimed that up to 2,000 nuns had been required to leave Larung Gar and return to their hometowns in other provinces.

Since about April, up to 1,000 nuns at Yachen Gar, another major monastic encampment in Pelyul (Beiyu) county, Kardze prefecture in Sichuan province, have been compelled to leave the institution and return to their homes in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), west of Yachen Gar. Yachen Gar, about 300 kilometers southwest of Larung Gar, has an estimated 10,000 residents, mostly nuns. It has not experienced major demolitions except for some associated with a road construction project, and, unlike Larung Gar, it remains open to foreign tourists.

The Yachen Gar evictions were carried out not by local authorities, but by officials in the TAR. TAR officials have pressured the families of nuns from the TAR to return immediately to their registered homes or face serious punishments, such as confiscation of family identity cards. The media reported that monks and nuns at Larung Gar from Chamdo and Nagchu prefectures in the TAR have been similarly ordered by TAR authorities to return to their places of registration.

The Chinese authorities have previously expressed concerns about fire and other structural risks at the Larung Gar community, which they have a responsibility to address. However, resolving legitimate safety and health concerns cannot be a pretext for reducing the size of a religious community or compelling religious adherents to leave. The right to freedom of religious belief is recognized under article 36 of China’s constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects both the right to freedom of religion “either alone or in community with others” (article 18), and the right to freedom of movement and residence within a country’s borders (article 13).

There are unconfirmed reports that officials plan to offer compensation of up to 20,000 yuan (US$3,000) to those forced to leave Larung Gar or whose homes have been demolished. No such compensation has been offered to nuns forced to leave Yachen Gar. While such payments lessen the financial cost to those uprooted by the government’s actions, they do not address the serious violations of basic rights to freedom of religion and movement suffered – violations that would be better addressed by permitting improved and expanded residential facilities at the Buddhist institutions, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch urged Chinese authorities to immediately investigate reports that TAR officials are threatening family members of monks and nuns to compel their relatives to leave their chosen places of religious study. The government should also allow any nuns forced to leave Yachen Gar or other religious institutions to continue their religious activities.

“Chinese authorities should address concerns about overcrowded religious institutions by allowing Tibetans to establish more institutes and build more facilities. China’s government should respect its own constitution and international legal obligations and permit full freedom of religious practice,” Richardson said.

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Rights Groups: Obama Should Ask “Where is Sombath?” During Laos Visit

Shui Meng Ng is seen at an Aug. 31 press conference in Bangkok about her missing husband, Sombath Somphone.

Shui Meng Ng is seen at an Aug. 31 press conference in Bangkok about her missing husband, Sombath Somphone.

Rights groups are demanding that US Barack Obama ask the Lao authorities for a renewed investigation into the whereabouts of missing Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in December 2012 and who has not been heard from since. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, Obama arrived in Vientiane on Tuesday morning and met with Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit.

Obama and leaders from across South East Asia are meeting in Vientiane, the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), to attend the ASEAN summit from September 6-8th 2016. In advance of the visit, US officials spoke of an emerging partnership on development between the two countries, which focuses on health, nutrition and basic education. As visitors frequently note, the pace of life is slow in Laos, remarkably so. But beneath the tranquil surface that President Obama will encounter, there lurk endemic human rights problems.

“Barack Obama must seize this rare opportunity to raise concerns about the human rights situation in the notoriously closed country, including by asking the authorities, ‘Where is Sombath?’” said T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s International Advocacy Director.

On December 15th 2012, Sombath Somphone, a leading member of Lao civil society, was stopped by traffic police and taken away in a pick-up truck. His whereabouts remain unknown, his family has not been kept informed by the authorities, and there has been no credible investigation into his enforced disappearance.

“More than three years have passed since Sombath Somphone was last seen. We have no alternative but to conclude that the authorities are either directly responsible for his disappearance, or have failed miserably to take all necessary measures to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.

Sombath Somphone’s disappearance was chillingly captured on CCTV. In the video, he is last seen stopped at a police post, and asked to step out of his car by traffic police. Moments later, a motorcyclist arrives at the scene, abandons his motorcycle and drives away in Sombath Somphone’s car.

A few minutes later, another man emerges from the police post, and waits by the side of the road. Soon, a pick-up truck arrives, with its lights flashing. Sombath Somphone and others get into the truck. The truck then leaves, with armed people riding a motorcycle leading the way. The passenger on the motorcycle fires a gunshot in the air.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch said that “President Obama and world leaders gathering in Laos need to demand answers and accountability from their Lao government hosts on the case of disappeared NGO leader Sombath Somphone. The message has to be clear that the cover up has to end, Sombath needs to be found, and that no other outcome is acceptable.”

Sombath’s case has come to be viewed as emblematic of the issue of enforced disappearances in Laos, where eight other cases have been brought to the attention of the UN group that investigate the human rights violation, and indeed crime, of enforced disappearance.

The Lao government has failed to order an independent investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and has resisted efforts to have his case discussed at previous ASEAN events.

“The establishment of an independent commission to impartially, thoroughly and effectively probe his case is long overdue. The commission should not only ensure that Sombath Somphone is safely returned to his family, but also identify those suspected of criminal responsibility and bring them to justice in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty,” said Rafendi Djamin.

On August 25th, 45 organizations and individuals addressed a letter to President Obama asking that he pressure the government of Laos to investigate into Sombath’s disappearance and create a safe public domain for non-profit organizations and independent media.

“As you prepare your public remarks for the ASEAN Summit this September, we ask that you please raise once again the worldwide concern about increasing incidents of disappearances, violent acts and threats against civil society actors,” the letter to President Obama states. “Your sustained concerned could make all the difference, not only for Sombath, but in deterring future abductions of this kind and in promoting the vitality of ASEAN’s civil society sectors.”

Sombath received his education from the University of Hawaii, where he studied Education and Agriculture. In 1979, he returned to Laos and initiated various successful community development projects and youth leadership training programs, and received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work. Prior to his disappearance, Sombath was involved in the Asia Europe People’s Forum and served as the bridge between the international communities and the government of Laos for the forum.

“Despite clear evidence on the CCTV footage suggesting that the police was involved in Sombath’s kidnapping, the government of Laos has repeatedly lied and continues to deny any responsibility,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of Human Rights Foundation. “For the remainder of his stay in Laos, President Obama should use his power as chief of state of one of the world’s strongest democracies to speak on behalf of Sombath’s family and confront the government of Laos over its appalling human rights record,” he added.

President Obama’s top aide, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, stated on Tuesday, that he will meet with Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng Ng, on Thursday. Rhodes also said at a press briefing Tuesday that “we care very deeply about her case and her husband, and we believe she deserves to know what happened to her husband.”

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China: Stop Enforced Disappearances

For the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance, which the United Nations observes every August 30th, the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) urges the Chinese government to end the use of enforced disappearance to persecute those they want to silence. Since President Xi Jinping took power in 2013, Chinese authorities have stepped up the abusive practice of subjecting human rights lawyers and other rights defenders to enforced disappearance, often by leveraging draconian domestic laws. Such laws grant police unbridled power to hold detainees in secret locations for indefinite periods of time.

CHRD calls for the release of all human rights lawyers and other rights advocates who have been detained incommunicado, and whose whereabouts remain unknown even after they have been granted bail or sentenced to suspended prison time. CHRD presses the government to provide fair and adequate reparations to both victims and their families.

China must honor its Human Rights Council membership pledge to uphold the highest international human rights standards by signing and ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of Persons from Enforced Disappearance (CPED), CHRD says. The international community should hold the Chinese government accountable for escalating violations of human rights committed through enforced disappearance as well as arbitrary detention and torture.

In refusing to sign and ratify the CPED, China has only indicated it “will carry out the study on the possibility of acceding to the CPED in due time.” The Convention considers an “enforced disappearance” to be “the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.”

Enforced or involuntary disappearance constitutes a crime under the CPED and is considered a crime against humanity under the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances and the Rome Statute of the International Court (Article 7). Victims of enforced disappearance are at high risk of torture and other kinds of ill-treatment. Under the CPED, governments have an obligation to ensure that victims have the right to “obtain reparation and prompt, fair and adequate compensation” (Article 24 (4)). In addition, their family members are also regarded as “victims,” since they would have “suffered harm as the direct result of an enforced disappearance” (CPED, Article 24 (1)).

Enforced disappearances of student protesters and other participants in the 1989 pro-democracy movement followed the military suppression. Chinese officials have said that the Tiananmen period is a “closed” chapter in history, however, thereby shutting the door on disclosing information on the fates of such individuals. Authorities also detained activists en masse in secret locations following online calls for Jasmine Rallies in 2011.

Police subjected at least 25 individuals to enforced disappearance in the months-long crackdown that drew worldwide criticism, including from UN human rights experts. Under several international instruments, citizens have the right to know the truth about enforced disappearances or missing persons. In its December 2015 Concluding Observations, the UN Committee against Torture (CAT) called on China to guarantee that family members of detainees are notified of their whereabouts.

The Xi Jinping regime has taken the practice of enforced disappearance to a new level, attempting to justify it on the basis of flawed domestic law. In 2012, China amended its Criminal Procedure Law to include “residential surveillance at a police-designated location” (Article 73), effectively legalizing a de facto form of enforced disappearance. Since then, Chinese authorities have often turned to this provision to deprive the liberty of citizens while relying on a pretext of legality.

Under Article 73, police can hold an individual for up to six months in a secret location with no access to their family or lawyer if they are suspected of, among other offenses, “endangering national security” crimes, which are vaguely defined. Police have regularly used the provision to disappear lawyers and activists in the 709 Crackdown that began in July 2015. In December 2015, CAT urged China to repeal Article 73 as a matter of urgency. China’s systemic problem with torture in detention and the overreliance on admittance of criminal wrongdoing to convict detainees raises concerns that some individuals held in secret are mistreated in order to coerce confessions.

Some current and recent cases of police enforced disappearance include:

  • During the “709” crackdown, CHRD has documented 26 cases of individuals forcibly disappeared at some point, including 16 known to have been held under “residential surveillance” at a police-designated location. The families of Li Chunfu, Li Heping and Wang Fang, three individuals taken into police custody last summer, did not receive any notification of their loved ones’ status until January 2016. In addition, activists Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhishun went missing in Myanmar last October and were secretly held in China for seven months before authorities informed their families that the pair had been arrested. Currently, 13 individuals from the 709 crackdown are still being held incommunicado.
  • Authorities claim they have released 20 individuals from the crackdown either on bail or with suspended prison sentences; all of them had previously been arrested, criminally detained, put under “residential surveillance,” or forcibly disappeared. However, the whereabouts of several of these individuals remain unknown, and most continue to be out of contact. Several are believed to be under close watch by police and essentially still in a state of enforced disappearance, including: Bao Longjun, Gou Hongguo, Ren Quanniu, Wang Yu, Zhai Yanmin, Zhao Wei and Zhang Kai.
  • Three Beijing-based employees of Wujie News, also known as “Watching News,” disappeared in mid-March 2016 following the publication of an anonymous letter on Wujie’s website calling on President Xi Jinping to resign. Executive director Ouyang Hongliang and staff members Cheng Shengzhong and Huang Zhijie remain missing after over five months. Ouyang Hongliang’s wife released an open letter on June 24th pleading for information on her husband’s whereabouts.
  • Zhao Suli and her husband, the political dissident Qin Yongmin, went missing on January 9th 2015. After Zhao and Qin were seized in Wuhan, Hubei Province, police refused to respond to inquiries about their whereabouts from the couple’s family members and lawyers. In June 2016, authorities finally acknowledged Qin Yongmin’s detention status and allowed the first visit with his lawyer at Wuhan City No. 2 Detention Center, where he is being held on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” However, Zhao’s whereabouts remain unknown.

Guizhou-based human rights activist Mi Chongbiao and his wife, Li Kezhen, have been forcibly disappeared since May 2012. Authorities have held the couple in several “black jails,” makeshift facilities often used to hold human rights defenders, and repeatedly tortured them. In the latest reported incident, the elderly couple suffered broken bones in July 2016 from a violent attack by plainclothes officers and guards. The couple’s sons have occasionally been allowed brief meetings with their parents but at different locations, such as restaurants.

According to the United Nations, enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole.

Enforced disappearance has become a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world. Once largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can nowadays be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents. Of particular concern are: the ongoing harassment of human rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance; the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations and the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearance.

“On this international day, I urge all Member States to ratify or accede to the Convention without delay, and I call on the States parties to the Convention to implement it. It is time for an end to all enforced disappearances,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.

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Myanmar Government Must Ensure Women’s Participation in Peace Talks

A displaced Kachin woman in Kachin State said that Burmese soldiers repeatedly fired upon her and her three grandchildren while they fled for safety. “When we ran the soldiers shot at us,” she said. “We were really afraid. We just ran and hid. There were many mosquitos and we were all wet in the rain, and everyone was crying.” Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

A displaced Kachin woman in Kachin State said that Burmese soldiers repeatedly fired upon her and her three grandchildren while they fled for safety. “When we ran the soldiers shot at us,” she said. “We were really afraid. We just ran and hid. There were many mosquitos and we were all wet in the rain, and everyone was crying.” Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

Myanmar’s government and ethnic armed groups should ensure that women meaningfully participate in efforts to end the country’s longstanding armed conflicts, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released Thursday. The government should also make women’s rights a priority as Myanmar continues its political transition. In late August 2016, the National League for Democracy-led government that was elected in November 2015, and various armed groups will meet at the “Panglong 21st Century Peace Conference” to begin talks.

Women make up just over half of the population in Myanmar, but have been noticeably absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end armed conflict in the country. Beyond women holding few, if any, senior positions in the parties involved in these negotiations, many women’s groups report being treated with disdain or as “spoilers” for pressing for the inclusion of women’s rights.

The 18-page report, ‘A Gentleman’s Agreement’: Women’s Participation in Myanmar’s Peace Negotiations and Political Transition, examines women’s participation in peace efforts in Myanmar and the devastating impacts of the country’s wars on women. Women have been almost entirely absent from nearly four years of peace negotiations to end the fighting in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi heads the National League for Democracy, and a few other women hold leadership positions in groups involved in these negotiations, but there have been only 10 women among 195 senior delegates in eight major peace efforts since 2012.

“Women in Myanmar are entitled to a meaningful and comprehensive role in determining their country’s future,” said Sarah Taylor, women’s rights advocate at Human Rights Watch. “Myanmar’s women have long endured abuses but have worked hard to advance human rights. Their voices should now be front and center.”

Myanmar has endured a number of prolonged internal armed conflicts since its independence in 1948, with three of the country’s seven ethnic-minority states facing ongoing fighting or tensions. In recent years the fighting in several parts of the country has worsened, with escalating violence in Kachin and Shan States resulting in countless civilian deaths and injuries, and the protracted displacement of over 200,000 people.

In May 2016, Human Rights Watch spoke with more than 25 Burmese women’s rights activists, armed group representatives, ceasefire monitors, and foreign diplomats. Women’s groups reported that government officials and leaders of non-state armed groups have long treated women with disdain or as “spoilers” when they pressed for the inclusion of women’s rights in talks. One leading women’s rights activist said “tea break advocacy”– during breaks in meetings – has often been the only space for women to influence delegates in ongoing negotiations.

Women in Myanmar need a greater role in the peace process not only because they suffer many of the consequences of the conflicts, but also because their participation can help ensure that a full range of human rights concerns are addressed in any peace agreement, Human Rights Watch said. This is crucial for obtaining a long and durable peace.

According to the report, women in Myanmar have long been targeted for abuse during the country’s many internal armed conflicts. Sexual violence by the Tatmadaw, and to some extent ethnic armed groups, has been frequent. Persistent abuses against civilians, including sexual violence, have been facilitated by the lack of accountability for such crimes. Local and international human rights groups have reported numerous cases of alleged sexual violence that the military has refused to seriously investigate. The Ministry of Defence informed the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar that the military prosecuted 61 armed services personnel for rape between 2011 and 2015—but provided few details on convictions or punishments. Where investigations and prosecutions do occur, many proceedings take place in military courts that lack independence from the chain of command and are rarely, if ever, open to the public.

For example, in January 2015, the bodies of two ethnic Kachin teachers, Maran Lu Ra, 20, and Tangbau Hkawn Nan Tsin, 21, were found in Shan State, where villagers and activists allege they were raped and then brutally murdered by Burmese army soldiers. Local activists, international nongovernmental organizations, and the United States government called on Myanmar to investigate the cases. In May 2016, the Tatmadaw made public statements saying that an investigation had taken place, but there has been no information about charges being brought against suspects or about any trial, let alone convictions.

Sang Gang internally displaced persons camp, Kachin State, in 2011. Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

Sang Gang internally displaced persons camp, Kachin State, in 2011. Photo courtesy Human Rights Watch.

In addition to being targeted for sexual violence and other abuses, women and girls have often been impacted by armed conflict in other specific and disproportionate ways. As the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, noted in 2016: ‘’Sexual violence has been exacerbated by conflict and displacement, notably in Kachin and northern Shan States, linked to the collapse of social protection mechanisms, the increased presence of armed actors, and military camps in proximity to civilian centers. … A rise in trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced marriage was noted, with 45 cases recorded early in 2015. Stateless women and those who lacked identity documents were at greatest risk, including while travelling on crowded boats and staying in smugglers’ camps.’’

The displacement of civilian populations during the fighting has had multiple distinct impacts on women and girls in Myanmar. Although data is scarce, the UN Population Fund notes that displacement has resulted in a lack of access to livelihoods for affected populations, forcing many of the men to seek work away from their families. ‘’Their prolonged absence has a profound effect on the safety and security of women and girls. … recent reports indicate that GBV [gender based violence], including sexual violence, are a constant fear and threat.’’

As Myanmar women’s rights organizations repeatedly highlight, justice for women and girls in Myanmar remains elusive, particularly with regard to violence related to armed conflict. There is no institutionalized complaint mechanism for victims of sexual violence perpetrated by the Tatmadaw, consistent with the UN Declaration of Commitment to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, which the government signed in 2014. When Tatmadaw soldiers are involved in abuses against civilians, victims and their families must rely on the Tatmadaw to initiate proceedings against its soldiers. Despite allegations of more than 70 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the Burmese army over the past 4 years, few prosecutions have been publicly reported; in 2014 only two soldiers were known to have been convicted of rape.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in the Myanmar section of his 2015 report on conflict-related sexual violence, noted that “legal recourse needs to be available uniformly and systematically” and that special rapporteurs on Myanmar had called for the constitution to be amended so that security forces are subject to civilian oversight.

Burmese civilians have been victims of abuses during armed conflict since Myanmar’s independence in 1948. Fighting between government forces and ethnic armed groups has surged on and off in recent years, and ceasefire agreements have unraveled.

In addition to including women as full partners in peace talks, the new government should abolish or revise laws enacted by the previous administration that curtail the rights of women and criminal laws that provide inadequate protection to women, Human Rights Watch said. There is no specific law criminalizing violence against women at home or sexual harassment in the workplace, nor does current law allow women to seek protection from the state, including restraining orders on violent men.

International human rights law and the principles contained in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace, and security oblige governments to take steps to remove discrimination against women in public life, and to respect their right to take part in public affairs. Such action should set the standard for the essential role of women in Myanmar in preventing and ending armed conflicts. This includes peace negotiations, peace-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian response, and post-conflict reconstruction.

“Myanmar’s government and military and ethnic armed groups should all commit to promoting respect for women’s rights,” Taylor said. “These parties can start at the upcoming Panglong Peace Conference by ensuring that women have a prominent place at the negotiating table.”

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New Report Urges Myanmar Government to Address Displaced Refugees

Three civil society organizations have released a joint report, titled Invisible Lives: The Untold Story of Displacement in Burma, underlying the ongoing challenges facing displaced ethnic communities in Myanmar. The report highlights the case of Mon refugees who were repatriated from Thailand in 1994 only to remain as internally displaced persons (IDPs) for the last twenty years. In Myanmar, one of the world’s longest running civil wars has inevitably led to a displacement crisis that has predominantly affected the ethnic minority communities.

In their report, Human Rights Foundation of Monland, Burma Link and Burma Partnership. In doing so, expose the factors that led to displacement, along with the obstacles facing IDPs upon their return to Myanmar. These findings may be applied not only to Mon refugees but also to the rest of Burma’s 644,000 displaced individuals, including the approximately 100,000 refugees living along the Thailand-Burma border. The organizations claim that recently, much attention surrounding Myanmar has focused on the democratic reform, 2015 elections and the future of the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led Government, while a profound humanitarian crisis and continuing concerns of the ethnic minority communities in the southeast have been largely ignored. The recent story of political and economic reform has insufficiently addressed the ongoing struggles of IDPs.

According to the report, the roots of Mon IDPs traces back to early conflict beginning in 1948, as Mon ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) fought for self-determination and ethnic equality. The following years, through periods of intense military campaigns by the Burma Army against the Mon EAOs, eventually resulted in the displacement of between 10,000 and 12,000 ethnic Mon civilians into Thailand in 1990. Unfortunately, this did not offer any respite for the Mon refugees, who were eventually forced back into Myanmar despite not having any guarantee that they would be free from violence or persecution.

To this day, returned Mon refugees continue to face serious challenges at IDP sites in Myanmar, including the inability to maintain a sustainable livelihood, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare.

In addition, Invisible Lives has documented the decreasing humanitarian aid available to Mon IDPs, a trend that has been observed throughout Burma’s ethnic border regions as international aid priorities have shifted to inside the country as a result of the country’s recent economic and political transitions.

A number of Mon IDPs interviewed for Invisible Lives expressed concern over their personal security when considering their return to their place of origin as “border-trade, land disputes and natural resource extraction have the potential of renewing outbreaks of armed conflict in the southeast.”

Despite a ceasefire in place, numerous interviewees spoke of the fragility of the peace process and questioned how they might be protected in the event of renewed conflict. This concern is not limited to just the ethnic Mon – the lack of genuine political will from successive Myanmar governments and military regimes to address the root causes of conflict in ethnic regions has led to numerous international and domestic human rights advocates, including the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee to question how Myanmar’s current peace process is going to achieve sustainable peace. Failure to address these root causes will only further complicate the already complex lead-up process to the 21st Century Panglong Conference.

Returning refugees, the organizations say, must also contend with limited land ownership rights, which have long contributed to limited land security and further displacement. This feeling was best characterized by Khu Oo Reh, General-Secretary of the United Nationalities Federal Council, who recently responded to a statement by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during their meeting in which the state counselor asked political stakeholders to think about how they can “give” as oppose to “take” during the upcoming peace process. In contrast, Khu Oo Reh highlighted how historically, successive Myanmar governments and military regimes have continually exploited ethnic areas, stating, “Go and look at the non-Bamar ethnic states. Mountains have turned flattened, flat lands (plains) become desert, river, stream and ponds dried. Our villages were being destroyed and our population have fled to jungles and mountains. Our mineral resources have been depleted and no trees and bamboos (forest) exist anymore. Now, what do you want more from us? What should we give more?”

Invisible Lives has illuminated a number of factors that should be seriously considered by the new NLD-led Government with genuine political will ahead of the upcoming 21st Century Panglong conference. If the peace process is to be a success, all stakeholders must take the time to examine the factors that underscore the tensions between non-Myanmar ethnic nationalities groups, the Myanmar Army and the Myanmar government. All parties involved in the peace process, including international peace donors, must also recognize the dire conditions facing IDPs in Burma, namely to help provide sustainable livelihoods for conflict-affected displaced ethnic populations.

Finally, the report says, any talk of repatriation must be inclusive with meaningful consultation and participation of refugees and IDPs themselves and potential local hosts, as well as ethnic community-based organizations, to ensure that their concerns are addressed adequately and effectively for long term sustainable solutions. This should also include special attention to international instruments such as the UN’s Principles on Housing, Land and Property Rights for Refugees and Displaced Persons (also known as the ‘Pinheiro Principles’) and other best practices.

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Civil Society Launches #Freethe5KH Campaign in Support of Imprisoned Rights Defenders

Inffographic-_Free-the-5_ENGCivil society has launched a campaign in support of the five Cambodian human rights defenders, who are currently in pre-trial detention and under judicial investigation for allegations of bribery. The five face charges in regard to providing advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs to the woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with the deputy opposition leader, Kem Sokha.

The five rights defenders have now spent over 100 days in prison.

More than 50 local, regional and international civil society organizations launched the #FreeThe5KH campaign in support of the five human rights defenders who are currently in pre-trial detention and under judicial investigation for trumped-up allegations of bribery. The organizations say the charges have all the hallmarks of being politically motivated, amounting to legal harassment.

Since April 28th 2016, the five Cambodian human rights defenders – four senior staff members from the NGO Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda and Ms. Lim Mony, and deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (and former ADHOC staff member) Mr. Ny Chakrya – have been detained.

On May 2nd, the four ADHOC staff were indicted with bribing a witness, and Ny Chakrya was indicted as an accomplice to the same crime. United Nations (UN) staffer Mr. Soen Sally was also indicted as an accomplice; however, he remains free due to his immunity as a UN official. That same day, Chakrya was transferred to Police Judiciare and the four ADHOC staff were transferred to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.The Appeal Court denied the detainees bail on June 13th 2016. A final appeal against the bail decisions is currently pending before the Supreme Court.

While they may be behind bars, the five have not been forgotten.

The #FreeThe5KH campaign aims to garner support for the detained human rights defenders, to remind them that the public has not forgotten about their cause and to help keep their morale high while they remain in arbitrary detention.

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In Laos, Three Human Rights Activists Held Incommunicado

Three Lao human rights activists have been arrested in March 2016 in circumstances that may constitute enforced disappearances, says Amnesty International. They remain in incommunicado detention since they appeared on national television on May 25th in a report that confirmed that they had been arrested for threatening national security through social media postings.

Soukan Chaithad (32), Lodkham Thammavong (30) and Somphone Phimmasone (29) are Lao nationals who had been working in Thailand until February 2016, when they returned to Laos to obtain documentation to continue working there. The three had participated in a peaceful demonstration of around 30 people outside the Lao embassy in Bangkok on December 2nd 2015, Lao national day, and had posted a number of messages on Facebook criticising the Laos government for corruption, deforestation and human rights violations. 

Lodkham Thammavong and Somphone Phimmasone, who are a couple, were arrested at home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province on March 5th. Soukan Chaithad was arrested on March 22nd, reportedly at the Ministry of Public Security office in Savannaket City, western Laos, where he had gone to renew his passport. The arrests may amount to enforced disappearances, as the whereabouts of the three are being concealed after their arrests.  

On May 25th, the three appeared on state television wearing prison uniforms, sitting at a table in front of uniformed police and men in plain clothes, in a report that confirmed that they had been arrested for allegedly being a threat to national security through social media postings. During the report, Soukan Chaithad said that he would “change his attitude and stop all activities that betray the nation”. He added that his confession had not been coerced by the authorities.

The three still remain in incommunicado detention. It is unclear what offences they are accused of committing, whether they have been charged and where they are detained.  

Amnesty International is calling on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Soukan Chaithad, Lodkham Thammavong and Somphone Phimmasone if they have been arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. They also urge the authorities to publicly make known the charges against the three, their whereabouts and well-being and demand that the Lao authorities immediately cease the practice of enforced disappearances and ensure access of individuals arrested and charged with recognized criminal offenses to their family and lawyers of their choosing, in line with international standards.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a one-party state under the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are severely restricted in the country. In September 2014, a new Prime Ministerial Decree on management of information through the Internet was enacted. Since its enactment at least two people have been arrested in relation to information posted online, one of whom has since been released. The other, Bounthanh Thammavong, is a Polish national of Lao descent who was convicted of criticizing the ruling party on Facebook and other anti-government activities and sentenced to four years and nine months in prison.  

Laos signed the International Covenant on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in September 2008 but has not yet ratified it. The most well-known enforced disappearance case in recent years involved Sombath Somphone, who was last seen at a police post in the capital Vientiane in December 2012. The government has acknowledged his disappearance but has failed to ensure a full and independent investigation.

Sompawn Khantisouk, an entrepreneur who was active on conservation issues, remains disappeared since being abducted by men believed to be police in 2007.

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Chinese Human rights Lawyer Wang Yu Released on Bail Following Confession

On August 1st 2016 a videotaped confession of Chinese human rights defender Wang Yu was circulated on Chinese state media websites in which she states that she has been released on bail. Wang Yu had been in detention since July 9th 2015 and in January 2016 was charged with ‘’subversion of state power.’’ She was one of scores of human rights lawyers who were rounded up in a nationwide crackdown and of whom around 20 still remain in detention.

The conditions surrounding Wang Yu’s bail and the extent of her freedom are unknown, furthermore doubts exist as to the veracity of her confession, according to international human rights group Frontline Defenders.

Wang Yu is a human rights lawyer who has taken on a number of so-called ‘’sensitive’’ cases since beginning her human rights work in 2011. Among those she has defended is Uyghur academic Ilham Tohti, who in September 2014 was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of separatism. She also provided legal assistance to the families of six schoolgirls who were sexually abused by their teachers in Hainan province.

In her confession released on August 1st, Wang Yu criticized fellow human rights lawyers, saying that they were motivated by money and fame and blamed overseas activists for using human rights defenders as tools to tarnish the reputation of the Chinese government.

Wang Yu’s confession is the most recent in a series of televised confessions of human rights defenders which have been broadcast in an attempt to undermine human rights work in the country. At least two of those who had previously appeared in such videos later said that their confessions were scripted and that they were pressured to participate.

A legal assistant, Zhao Wei, who was detained at the same time as Wang Yu, was reportedly released on bail on July 7th, although her husband has since been unable to contact her.

Wang Yu had been held incommunicado since July 9th 2015 and her husband, Bao Longjun, remains in detention, having been seized on the same day. Their 16 year old son, Bao Zhuoxuan, is under tight surveillance at the home of his grandparents following an unsuccessful attempt to flee China last year with the help of two human rights defender friends of his parents.

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