Kachin IDPs (Photo: Zen Myat/Karen News)

Fortify Rights: Burma Army Committing “War Crimes” In Kachin State

Burma’s military is engaging in systemic torture against civilians in its ongoing war in Kachin State, now in its third year, and committing “war crimes” and “crimes against humanity,” a leading human rights watchdog has claimed in a report released today.

The 71-page report entitled, Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar, by Fortify Rights, documents the torture and abuse of civilians by the Burma Army, Military Intelligence and the Police, from June 2011 to April 2014 and uses 78 first-hand accounts.

Fortify Rights said that the use of torture by the Burma Army was systemic and had the support of President U Thein Sein’s government.

“The similarities in incidents of torture documented in disparate locations during a three-year period indicate that torture was carried out as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population with the backing of the state. Civilians were systematically tortured in rural villages, areas of armed conflict, government facilities, and places of detention.”

Jessica Nhkum, the joint general secretary of the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), in an interview with Karen News said that while the Burma government is discussing a ceasefire with the Kachin Independent Organisation (KIO) its armed forces were reinforcing its military hold on the state. “In reality the Burma Army is maintaining its forces in Kachin State. We cannot be confident in the peace talks while the [Burma] Army is still attacking our Kachin people and perpetrating human rights abuses.

Ms Nhkum said that the Burma government has to do more if it wants a genuine peace with ethnic people.

“The first step must be for the government to withdraw their troops and stop abusing civilians.”

The Kachin State conflict, which first erupted in June 2011 with a Burma Army offensive against the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) shattering a 17-year ceasefire, has displaced more than 100,000 civilians into 165 displacement camps in Kachin State and neighboring Shan State, and has claimed hundreds of lives. Far from a small and localized conflict, the Kachin war has seen the use of government helicopter gunships, heavy artillery and jet fighters.

Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, accused the Burma Army of acting with total impunity.

“The authorities have tortured Kachin civilians with brutal and inhuman tactics, and those responsible for these crimes have acted with complete impunity for three years,” he said, “The government must fulfill its duty to put a stop to these serious crimes and ensure accountability for abuses.”

Kachin civilians reported being tortured in myriad ways. Many reported severe beatings at the hand of the military or security forces with bamboo sticks, metal rods and rifle butts – some were forced to lick up pools of their own blood. In other cases, Burma Army troops forced civilian detainees to dig what they were told would be their own graves, before releasing them from custody.

Fortify Rights alleged that the Burma Army also killed three individuals who were in their custody, and that it had photos on file to prove that the prisoners had suffered beatings before their deaths.

Mr. Smith warned that the systemic use of torture by the Burma Army undermined the country’s ongoing peace process with ethnic armed groups. “The peace process can’t take hold while soldiers and intelligence officers continue to torture members of minority groups with complete impunity,” he said, adding, “The government should demonstrate its commitment to national reconciliation and immediately intervene to end these abuses and bring perpetrators to justice.”

In one case cited in the Fortify Rights report, a Kachin villager named ‘Maru Seng’ was tied up, denied food and water and beaten severely by Burma Army soldiers. When he attempted to escape he was shot in the head by one of the soldiers, only to survive and suffer more torture. “I thought they would kill me,” he says in the report.

Mr. Smith called on the international community to “wake up” and take action. “The international community needs to wake up and comprehend the severity of abuse being perpetrated against the Kachin people,” he said, “Foreign governments should demand an end to these abuses and ensure survivors get the support they need. Governments and donors should increase financial, technical, and advocacy support for human rights defenders in the country.”

Ms Nhkum agreed with the Fortify Rights report and told Karen News that the cases of abuse that are in the report reflect what her organization has been documenting.

“The Fortify Rights report directly highlights the reality that we are seeing on the ground in Kachin State, We are hearing of cases exactly like those cited in the FR report.”

Ms Nhkum told Karen News the Burma Army has a notorious record on its human rights abuse of civilians.

“We are glad to see this report; the civilians and IDP’s are facing these abuses wherever the Burma Army is [operating]. For us Kachin people, the Burma Army presence means human rights abuses – we are fearful of them.”

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