Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Burma’s hidden horrors

“Every day the soldiers were shooting at villagers, so I could not get out from under the bed to drink water or eat food. For two days, I had no food or water. I was pregnant at the time, so it was very difficult.”

Such horrendous testimony emerging from Kachin state in northern Burma is a farKachin civilian injured by Burma army mine cry from the scenes of celebration and hope surrounding Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign tour just a few hundred miles further south.  This is a grim reminder that whilst things are undoubtedly improving in Burma (including it would seem in some ethnic areas) the horrendous attacks against the Kachin people are dragging on.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s latest report, meticulously compiled through front line investigation and witness testimony, documents amputation, rape, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrest, with victims including women and young children.  These are reflective of the worst horrors perpetrated by Burma’s successive dictatorial governments over the past five decades – and they clearly have not gone away.

The current round of fighting in Kachin state began in June 2011, following the government’s termination of a seventeen year ceasefire with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) – which contrary to its name, seeks autonomy and civil rights rather than political secession. Despite constant attempts by the KIA to strike a peace deal, and a limitation of its armed activities to defensive Kachin KIA soldier at graveactions, Burmese government troops have flooded the region and attacked the civilian population with impunity.

Ominously a ceasefire declaration by President Thein Sein late last year, was seemingly ignored as soldiers continued to rampage and kill – prompting speculation in some quarters that the leaders in Naypyidaw may not have full control of their troops on the ground.  Certainly witness testimony from Kachin prisoners underscores an acute picture of ill-discipline: “After 6pm the officers went from cell to cell torturing each of us. The soldiers were drunk the whole time and they beat us whenever they wanted.”

Recent official statements have further exacerbated confusion around the government’s position.  Thein Sein’s Union Day Speech was unprecedentedly positive about Burma’s minorities, including reference to the 1947 Panglong Agreement struck between Aung San Suu Kyi’s father and ethnic representatives.  Yet conversely, the chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (established by Thein Sein last September) killed any hopes of governmental self-scrutiny, by confirming that the body would not be investigating any human rights abuses in Kachin state.

Not only do the on-going atrocities threaten to undermine progress made by the government, they also risk creating rifts between the various groups working for freedom and human rights.  Whilst Aung San Suu Kyi has been outspoken about the situation, some Kachin remain sceptical about her ability to ease their plight.  Her open letter to Thein Sein and ethnic leaders calling for an end to hostilities, was also criticised by those who felt it did not adequately acknowledge the government’s primacy in the abuses

As she steers the reform process forward, up to and beyond the April by-elections, the inspirational NLD leader must ensure that her commitment to the Kachin people is clear.  Without visible support it would be understandable for those facing the horrors unfolding in the region, to feel abandoned by the democracy movement.

Ultimately an end to the government’s attacks, withdrawal of troops and a genuine political settlement –ideally in the form of federalism, are essential steps to take if Burma is to genuinely progress.  In recent years governments from Sri Lanka to Indonesia have demonstrated that elections alone do not prevent the most brutal or even genocidal state actions.  As long as the Kachin continue to suffer – Burma can never be truly free.

 Kachin protest in USA


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