Nov 11 8 Comments

The World’s Burmese Daze

Photo by Kris Ryan. This photo was taken in a refugee camp in Burma where the political changes are not noticed.

For the first time in my life, my name has been in the Wall Street Journal. If only my grandmother had been alive to see that!

It was an article that I wrote that was pretty bad to begin with, then my friend Matt fixed it, then I added some more, then he fixed it some more, then the editor of the WSJ also edited it a bit. It was a team effort in the grandest sense of the word! The main thing, however, is not who wrote it, but that the plight of the Kachin and others in Burma can become better known. 

The Wall Street Journal wants people to pay to read their stuff. (Perhaps it has something to do with having to pay their staff) so it seems like most my friends are not able to download the full article for free. You can of course try here If you can’t open it, this is the article: 

Burma is closer than ever to winning its bid to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations this week after supportive comments by Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa. Mr. Natalegawa says Asean members feel “positive” about the bid and many are impressed by the “trajectory of positive developments” in the authoritarian country.

Political liberalization is a positive sign, but Asean must weigh it carefully against credible reports of increasing human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas. Asean sends the wrong message by rewarding Burma while its army engages in widespread rape and murder.

A year ago this week Burma held its first elections in two decades, and recent political developments under President Thein Sein’s new semi-civilian government have been met with robust international praise. While there is an understandable optimism in lowland Burma, something entirely different has been happening in highland ethnic areas. There, civilians in the midst of an ongoing civil war face abuse from the brutal Burma Army , while humanitarian aid is insufficient.

On June 9, just three months after the new government formed, conflict resumed between the Burma Army and the non-state (ethnic) Kachin Independence Army in Northern Burma, ending 17 years of ceasefire. Prior to the conflict, a building tension in the area can be attributed to a controversial, State controlled, hydropower project being built in an area of mixed administration as well as the KIA’s unwillingness to surrender their arms and assimilate into a State controlled Border Guard Force (BGF).

Ethnic Kachin civilians numbering 30,000 are not only getting caught in the crossfire as they flee attacks by the Burmese forces, their rights are also being systematically violated.

The civilian toll from the conflict has been documented by Partners Relief and Development, which has staff operating clandestinely in Kachin State. Witnesses have explained how Burma Army soldiers arrived in their villages, opened fire on civilians, robbed and looted their properties and destroyed medicines. In one report, ethnic villagers from eight locations described how at least 80 local civilians were recently arrested without charges and—having not returned—are feared dead.

Credible reports from Partners document a strong sexual element in the violence. Numerous reports of rape and sexual assault by the Burma Army have emerged from Kachin State since June. Partners witnesses have seen soldiers hanging condoms in the trees surrounding Kachin villages, sending a clear message to local women that there is a sadistic sexual tone to their military domination.

The army has also failed its legal obligation to ensure the health of wounded citizens and prisoners of war. On Oct. 8, a bomb exploded near the home of 15-year-old Lahpai Kai Ra, an ethnic Kachin girl from Shwigu District in Kachin State. She suffered an injury to her leg, but Burma Army soldiers still forced her to walk to a local church along with her grandmother and five other women, where about 50 Burmese soldiers were waiting for them. In total, 33 civilian women and children were held captive under armed guard for three days. Fearing for their lives, they escaped to the jungle. Due to infections stemming from improper treatment, Lahpai Kai Ra’s leg will most likely have to be amputated.

While the Burma Army continues to neglect its duty to protect civilians, it has ramped up its use of popular torture techniques, sparing no one. In one village, soldiers put a plastic bag over a 15-year old boy’s head and waterboarded him in an attempt to find out if his father was affiliated with the KIA.

Instead of responding to these abuses, Burmese authorities are not allowing humanitarian aid to reach the 20,000 internally displaced Kachin who fled their villages to take refuge in remote jungle camps. Despite a shortage of food, water, medicine and proper sanitation in these camps, the United Nations and other relief agencies are not authorized to provide aid. Agencies instead have to resort to clandestine operations.

There is no lack of information about the situation in Kachin. Well-publicized reports from Human Rights Watch and others have steadily emerged since June. In his September report to the U.N. General Assembly, Tomas Ojea Quintana, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burma, referred to the plight of the displaced Kachin populations as “perilous.”

Yet the international community remains fixated on high-level political changes in the capital. Repeated calls by the U.N. special rapporteur for a U.N.-mandated Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma has fallen on deaf ears. Only 16 U.N. member-nations have expressed support for the proposal.

If Asean wants to support the people of Burma, it should acknowledge that any positive political changes in lowland Burma coexist with a rapid increase in severe abuses in Burma’s ethnic areas. Meaningful political and legal reforms in the country deserve support, but they cannot come at the expense of parallel practical efforts to end abuses and hold perpetrators accountable, including a formal commission of inquiry.  Before that happens, the chair of Asean is a reward Burma does not deserve.

Mrs. Gumaer is the International Advocacy Officer and a founder at Partners Relief and Development, a non-governmental organization. Partners works with communities impacted by war in Burma and has staff in the conflict zones in Kachin State.