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Burma: U.N. Must Act to End Attacks on Karen

Army Uses Landmines to Prevent Civilians from Fleeing Conflict

(New York) - The U.N. Security Council must urgently respond to Burmese army attacks on ethnic Karen civilians that have displaced more than 10,000 villagers since November, Human Rights Watch said today. Civilians seeking refuge in Thailand have been placed at grave risk by landmines planted by the Burmese army along the border.

Human Rights Watch urged the Security Council to place Burma on its agenda in accordance with its April 28, 2006 resolution, “On Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict,” which affirms a collective responsibility of all U.N. members to protect civilian populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity when their governments do not provide that protection.

“The U.N. has just committed itself again to protecting civilians at risk, and thousands of Burmese are in urgent need of such help,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The atrocious situation in Burma is exactly the kind of crisis the resolution was designed to address. Without swift and decisive Security Council action, the killings and abuses there will not stop.”

Human Rights Watch has repeatedly urged the U.N. Security Council to put Burma on its formal agenda.

“China and Russia need to stop blocking action on Burma by the Security Council, as that gives a green light to the military government’s scorched earth policy,” said Adams.

Human Rights Watch reiterated its call for the United Nations to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity committed since the Burmese military government took power in 1988.

In November the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, began its largest offensive in the western and northern parts of Karen state since 1997. Burmese troops have looted and burned homes and planted anti-personnel landmines in civilian areas to terrorize the local population. In some cases, villagers have reportedly been ordered by battalion commanders to leave their homes or face summary execution. Fleeing villagers have reported witnessing soldiers commit extrajudicial killings and torture. They have also reported that men, women and children have been forcibly conscripted to work either as army porters or as unpaid laborers.

Government troops are continuing sweeping operations in Mon township, Nyaunglebin district. Army infantry battalions 241 and 242 are reportedly leading efforts to chase some 2,000 displaced Karen villagers. Those displaced are at particular risk due to the heavy rains caused by Cyclone Mala, which has made living conditions difficult. Many villagers are reportedly sick with malaria and dysentery. Karen villagers in Toungoo district – who were earlier forced to go to relocation sites, or faced execution – reported that they now have no shelter there and are living under trees in the rain.

According to humanitarian agencies, 4,000 people have been displaced in Mon township; 2,000 in Shwey Gyin and Kyauk Kyi townships combined; and more than 2,000 in Toungoo district. While more than 1,000 people have fled to the Salween River to seek refuge in Thailand, the Burmese army has reportedly laid more than 2,000 anti-personnel mines in a north-south line to stop further civilian movement from the mountains to the plains. This was allegedly done in order to block escape routes and deny the civilian population access to food supplies, commodities, and other humanitarian assistance.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to publicly call on Burma to end its attacks on ethnic minority populations. Embarrassed by the continued detention of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the failure of the constitutional convention, and the lack of democratic reform, ASEAN members have made increasingly critical statements about Burma’s military government. Last year, ASEAN asked Burma to give up its turn as chair of the organization. ASEAN’s special envoy to Rangoon expressed frustration at the slow pace of reform and at being prevented from meeting with a variety of political figures on a recent visit. But ASEAN has never directly addressed Burma’s human rights record or taken up attacks on Burma’s many ethnic populations.

“It is time for ASEAN to speak up about these horrific abuses,” said Adams. “Burma has snubbed polite entreaties from ASEAN members and has become an enormous embarrassment. It’s time for straight talk from Burma’s ‘friends.’”

In June, Human Rights Watched published a 70-page report, “They Came and Destroyed Our Village Again: The Plight of Internally Displaced Persons in Karen State,” which documented numerous incidents of forced displacement, including: a mother forced to flee her village after watching Burmese soldiers shoot and kill her daughter; a young family fleeing for their lives after soldiers went on a rampage in their Karen village; and a Karen man watching as troops looted his village after forcing him and other residents to flee. Such brutal acts are war crimes, and when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population, may amount to crimes against humanity.

The Burmese government continues to commit systematic, widespread and well-documented abuses in ongoing conflicts with ethnic minority rebel groups, including extrajudicial executions, rape, torture, forced relocation of entire villages and forced labor. Independent estimates suggest that, as of late 2004, as many as 650,000 people were internally displaced in eastern Burma alone. According to a recent survey, 157,000 civilians have been displaced in eastern Burma since the end of 2002, and at least 240 villages have been destroyed, relocated or abandoned. Many internally displaced persons live in hiding in war zones.

The Burmese army is responsible for horrific abuses not only against the Karen, but also against other ethnic minority groups. Last May, Human Rights Watch reported that entire villages in Shan state were burned down when Burmese government troops, backed by forces of the United Wa State Army, implemented a counter-insurgency strategy against the Shan State Army, an anti-government armed group. Government forces and the United Wa State Army have regularly targeted civilians by forcing whole villages to relocate. There are reports that they have also singled out young Shan men for execution and torture, and have raped Shan women and girls.

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