When a Multi-ethnic Nation Ignores Ethnic Rights


The Irrawaddy – Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Tuesday that Burmese government forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians since renewed fighting broke out in the northern state in June.

The international rights group estimated that some 30,000 civilians in Kachin State have been displaced by the conflict.

The Burmese government armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, said the HRW statement.

“Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers,” said Elaine Pearson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Tens of thousands of people have fled through the mountains and jungle at the height of the rainy season, driven away by fear of army attacks.”

The HRW statement backs up a claim made by the US special envoy to Burma, Derek Mitchell, who on Monday stated that the Burmese government has not made comparable progress in its relations with ethnic minorities in the north and east of Burma as it has with the democratic opposition—in particular noting that Naypyidaw had held high-level talks with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Mitchell also noted what he referred to as credible reports of continued human rights abuses, including violence against minority women and children.

“We made it very clear that we [the US]could not have a transformed relationship as long as these abuses and credible reports of abuses occur,” said Mitchell.

The criticisms come at a time when Naypyidaw has enjoyed much high acclaim following a series of moves viewed by Burmese and the international community at large as being progressive reforms, most notably the easing of censorship on the Burmese media, the suspension of the controversial Myitsone Dam project, and the release of 200 political prisoners.

The statements by Mitchell and by the HRW highlight growing concern that although reforms have been enacted in Rangoon and Naypyidaw, many observers see the government as being unable or unwilling to tackle issues in the ethnic areas.

Between 35 and 40 percent of Burma’s 55-million population is non-Burman, and although many of the country’s ethnic minorities have integrated into Burmese society over the years, many millions continue to live in the mountainous jungle that forms a natural horseshoe around the Burmese plains.

Ethnic minority groups include the Karen, the Shan, the Karenni, the Kachin, the Mon, the Chin and the Arakan, almost all of which have fought against the central government for independence or autonomy for decades.

Over the past 20 years, many ethnic armies have signed ceasefire agreements with the Burmese government, but conflicts have continued, exacerbated by overland deals with Burma’s neighbors, especially China and Thailand, and a flurry of investment in natural resources within ethnic minority areas.

Over the years, the Burmese army has repeatedly been accused of human rights abuses in ethnic areas, with several reports indicating that the abuses may be systemic, and indicative of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

In a letter to the editor of The New York Times on Oct. 6, Myra Dahgaypaw, an ethnic Karen woman wrote: “Burmese soldiers killed my parents, my brother and sister, and my uncle after they forced him to watch them rape his wife.

“If soldiers are able to use forced labor, sexual violence, forced relocation and other abuses as mechanisms of domination, why should [US] President Obama reward President Thein Sein?”

Her comment was written in response to an article titled, “In Myanmar, Seize the Moment,” written by a well-known Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U.

In his article, the author urged the US president to publicly support the “reforms” that are taking place in Burma.

He also wrote that Thein Sein has spoken forcefully of combating poverty, fighting corruption, ending the country’s multiple armed conflicts, and working for political reconciliation.

But despite the government’s recent approval of a “peacemaking committee” in parliament to deal with the issues surrounding the ongoing ethnic conflicts, observers say no tangible progress has been made—in fact, hostilities have escalated in some areas.

Brig-Gen Johnny, the commander of the rebel Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) Brigade 7, told The Irrawaddy that fighting—whether simple exchanges of gunfire or intense hostilities resulting in many casualties—break out almost every day in Karen State even though the government has declared its intention to seek a peace deal with armed ethnic groups.

“The release of more than 200 political prisoners, the suspension of the Myitsone dam, the establishment of a peacemaking committee—these steps are all good news,” said Johnny.