(New York) - Burmese army attacks against ethnic Shan civilians in northeastern Burma have displaced more than 10,000 people in the past three weeks, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on Burma's military government to immediately end attacks against civilians and other violations of international humanitarian law.
Following democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi's sentence this week to return to house arrest on August 11, Human Rights Watch reiterated its call to the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on Burma and to create a commission of inquiry to investigate possible war crimes and crimes against humanity by all parties to the fighting in Burma's ethnic minority areas.
"While the world has been focused on the trial of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese troops have been battering civilians as part of the military government's longstanding campaign against ethnic minorities," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These attacks in Shan state should remind the international community that in addition to the persecution of the Burmese political opposition, Burma's ethnic minorities are systematically marginalized and brutalized by the Burmese government and army."
According to credible reports by Shan human rights groups, the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, has deployed seven army battalions to clear civilians from large areas of Laikha township and parts of Mong Kerng township in central Shan state between July 27 and August 1. Troops have reportedly burned down more than 500 houses as they attacked 39 villages in the area. Human Rights Watch believes this recently scaled-up forced relocation operation is part of an intensified counterinsurgency campaign, as Tatmadaw units attack the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), an insurgent armed group that operates in the area. The SSA-S has been conducting deadly ambushes regularly for years and on July 15, SSA-S forces attacked the 515th Light Infantry Battalion in Laikha, killing 11 Tatmadaw soldiers. There are reports that many of the displaced civilians are moving toward the Thailand-Burma border.
The Thailand-Burma Border Consortium annual internal displacement survey reports that more than 13,000 civilians were displaced in 2008 in Laikha and surrounding townships because of increased Tatmadaw operations against the SSA-S. This follows years of similar operations. Between 1996 and 1998, the Tatmadaw effectively cleared central Shan state of its civilian population. Burmese army forces have been responsible for deliberate attacks on civilians, summary executions, rape, torture, destruction and forced relocation of villages, and use of child soldiers and forced labor. More than 350,000 civilians were forcibly displaced during that campaign, many of them becoming refugees in neighboring Thailand.
"While the Burmese Army flouts the laws of war, Shan civilians pay the price," said Adams. "The ongoing Burmese army attacks in Shan state demonstrate the vicious modus operandi of the Tatmadaw and its disdain for the lives and well-being of civilians."
Recent attacks by the Tatmadaw and their proxy forces, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, forced some 5,000 ethnic Karen across the border into Thailand in June. The civilians, mostly women and children, were fleeing fighting, forced labor, and the widespread sowing of landmines.
According to the Thailand-Burma Border Consortium's annual survey, nearly half a million people are internally displaced in eastern Burma, either in government relocation sites, within non-state armed groups ceasefire zones, or in so-called free-fire areas highly vulnerable to Tatmadaw patrols that maintain an unlawful "shoot on sight" policy against civilians. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses against civilians in ethnic areas of Karen state in eastern Burma and in Chin state in western Burma. Abuses such as extrajudicial killings, torture and beatings, and confiscation of land and property continue with impunity.
There are more than 140,000 Burmese refugees along the Thailand border in nine temporary refugee camps. Although 50,000 refugees have been resettled to third countries like the United States, Norway, and Canada, more refugees continue to arrive, fleeing the armed conflict in eastern Burma.
Thailand does not recognize people from Shan state as refugees, and refuses to permit the establishment of refugee camps for ethnic Shan, fearing a larger influx of civilians fleeing repression from northeastern Burma. Instead, those Shan who reach Thailand eke out an existence as migrant workers, often without legal status. Human Rights Watch called on the government of Thailand to offer sanctuary to refugees fleeing abuses in Shan state in accordance with international law. Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol, it is bound by the customary international law prohibition against returning people to countries where they face persecution.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its calls to the United Nations Security Council to establish a commission of inquiry into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Burma and to pursue a comprehensive arms embargo against Burma. Human Rights Watch said that Burma should become a regular topic for discussion on the Security Council agenda, to pressure the Burmese government to respect basic freedoms of its citizens and continue to inform Security Council members of its progress. Security Council Resolution 1674 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict states that "peace and security, development and human rights are the pillars of the United Nations and the foundations for collective security."
A May 2009 report by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, "Crimes in Burma", reviewed United Nations human rights reports for several years and concluded that human rights abuses are widespread, systematic, and part of state policy. The report, endorsed by five eminent international jurists, cited cases of forced relocation, sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, and torture. It similarly called for a commission of inquiry to be established by the Security Council to investigate potential crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma.
Human Rights Watch said an arms embargo could stop the supply of weapons, military assistance, and technology that enable continued attacks against civilians in ethnic conflict areas. China and Russia, both of whom supply weapons to Burma, are the military government's main diplomatic supporters and continue to block stronger international action against the ruling junta.
On August 13, the UN Security Council issued a weak press statement on Burma that both "reiterate[s] the importance of the release of all political prisoners," but also affirms Security Council members' "commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Burma.
"The UN Security Council should end its inaction and authorize a commission of inquiry into human rights abuses and enforce an arms embargo," said Adams. "This will not happen unless China and Russia stop protecting Burma's generals."