MYANMAR'S BORDERLANDS ON FIRE
The conflict in Myanmar’s Kachin and northern Shan States has now entered its seventh year, pitting the Myanmar Army against a range of ethnic armed groups in areas near the border with China. An escalation in fighting since November 2016 has seen a rise in the Army’s violations against civilians, which in some cases amount to war crimes. Ethnic armed groups have also committed serious abuses.
In one particularly bloody incident, 18 young men were killed in a single massacre at Nam Hkye Ho village, northern Shan State in late November 2016. Eyewitnesses said that around 100 Myanmar Army soldiers entered their village after fighting with an ethnic armed group nearby. The soldiers marched the village’s young men off at gunpoint. A short while later, gunfire rang out from the direction in which they had left.
When villagers who had fled returned several weeks later, they made a gruesome discovery – the charred remains of bodies dumped in two mass graves.
Other violations by the Tatmadaw, as the Myanmar Armed Forces are known, include extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture, the use of human shields, indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, arbitrary detention and the use of antipersonnel landmines, which are inherently indiscriminate.
People Amnesty International spoke to repeatedly implicated specific Army divisions in violations, including war crimes. But, far from facing investigation or prosecution, the soldiers and commanders responsible often get away with it.
We saw charred remains of what looked like a body [and] bones, but it was mostly ashes. … We already knew the 18 people were missing.
Fighting flares up
On 9 June 2011, fighting resumed between the Myanmar Army and the ethnic armed group the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), ending a 17-year ceasefire. Among other things, the conflict is rooted in long-standing discrimination towards ethnic minorities in Myanmar, desire for greater autonomy from the central government and greater control over local natural resources. Since then, the conflict has extended to northern Shan State and to other ethnic armed groups operating in the area.
In August 2016, the Myanmar Army launched an offensive against a string of KIA mountain posts, leading to renewed civilian displacement amidst some of the heaviest fighting in years in Kachin State. Several months later, the Northern Alliance, a new coalition of four ethnic armed groups, attacked Myanmar Army and police outposts in neighbouring northern Shan State, spurring a heavy-handed response by the Army.
On three visits to the conflict between March and May 2017, Amnesty International has documented a shocking pattern of violations against civilians.
The international community is familiar with the appalling abuses suffered by the Rohingya minority in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, but in Kachin and northern Shan states we found a similarly shocking pattern in the Army’s targeting of other ethnic minorities.
The Myanmar Army
Although a quasi-civilian government came to power under Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership in March 2016, the Myanmar Army retains considerable political and economic power. It is free from any civilian oversight. In Parliament, the military holds a quarter of the seats, and it also has overall control of the Ministries of Defence, Border Affairs and Home Affairs. All three ministries are key in protecting and upholding human rights. The Commander-in-Chief of the Myanmar Armed Forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has the authority to ensure that serious violations are investigated and prosecuted. Amnesty International is calling on him to bring such violations to an end, remove the perpetrators from frontline duties and ensure accountability.
© AUNG HTET/AFP/Getty Images
Displaced and cut off
More than 98,000 civilians are currently displaced in northern Myanmar amid the ongoing fighting between the Tatmadaw and various ethnic armed groups.
Myanmar’s government has exacerbated the difficulties for many of the displaced by restricting humanitarian access to certain affected areas, particularly those controlled by armed groups. Humanitarian officials said this undermined their ability to respond quickly to emergency situations and to provide necessary humanitarian assistance like shelter, access to water, and sanitation.
Almost 100,000 people have been torn away from their homes and farms due to conflict and human rights violations in northern Myanmar. All sides must protect civilians amid the conflict and the Myanmar authorities need to immediately end the humanitarian access restrictions that have further harmed this already-vulnerable population.
UN Fact-Finding Mission
In March 2017, the UN Human Rights Council established an independent, international fact-finding mission to look into recent human rights violations and abuses in Myanmar, and in particular in Rakhine State but it has the power to extend its mission to Shan and Kachin where the current conflict rages. Now it can begin its long overdue investigation into alleged violations by Myanmar’s security forces and other parties.
The Myanmar government should welcome the fact-finding mission and assist its work in every possible way. Establishing the full truth of events which in some cases amount to war crimes and, in the case of Rakhine state possibly crimes against humanity, is key to prevent future abuses. The plight of the embattled ethnic and religious minorities of Myanmar’s borderlands should receive the full attention of the international community, with those responsible for the violations against them brought to account to end a long-standing cycle of impunity and violence.
© UN Photo
Parallel peace process
The conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan States take place in a context of decades-long civil wars between the Myanmar Army and many ethnic armed groups in the country’s border areas. In 2012, under the former administration, a new peace process was initiated. It led, on 15 October 2015, to the signing of what is called the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) between the government and eight ethnic armed groups. However, many other armed groups, including almost all of those operating in Kachin and northern Shan States did not sign the accord, either because the military did not allow them to or because they did not think it addressed their concerns.
Following historic elections, a new quasi-civilian government led by former opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) came to power at the end of March 2016. It has made the peace process and national reconciliation one of its top priorities, and held major peace conferences in August 2016 and May 2017.
Despite these efforts, the conflicts in Kachin and northern Shan States have not only continued but intensified over the past seven months.
Aung San Suu Kyi has prioritized the ongoing national peace process – but for it to succeed, it will have to be rooted in accountability and respect for the rights of all civilians, including ethnic minorities.