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(New York) - The Burmese military leadership should adopt measures to end abuses and ensure that those responsible are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the judge advocate general of the Burmese Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Yar Pyae.

In the letter, sent to coincide with Burma's 66th Armed Forces Day on March 27, 2011, Human Rights Watch called on the judge advocate general, the military's chief legal officer, to publicly order all members of the armed forces to abide by international human rights and humanitarian law. The Burmese military continues to commit widespread and serious abuses in its operations against ethnic armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. These include extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, forced labor, and destruction and theft of food and property.

"The Burmese military, unlike the government, isn't even pretending to be ‘new and improved,' and its dismal record shows that," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. "The army leadership needs to send the message that abuses must stop, and enforce that message by prosecuting the perpetrators."

Human Rights Watch said that the Burmese military should take all measures necessary to minimize harm to civilians during hostilities and ensure that all personnel who commit abuses are fully investigated and disciplined or prosecuted as appropriate. It should also encourage greater civilian oversight into the prosecution of offenses by soldiers against civilians, and ensure that members of non-state armed groups prosecuted for genuine crimes be tried in civilian courts, not in military tribunals.

Human Rights Watch remains deeply concerned by the failure of the Burmese Armed Forces, or Tatmadaw, to seriously investigate and prosecute military personnel for their involvement in violations of the laws of war, which are applicable in Burma.

Since November 2010, Tatmadaw operations have increased in central Karen State of eastern Burma, resulting in tens of thousands of civilians being displaced on both sides of the Burma-Thailand border. Civilians have been forced to carry wounded army personnel through areas containing anti-personnel landmines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Large numbers of convicts from several prisons throughout Burma have been forced to be porters for the army during military operations, including walking ahead of troops to trigger landmines in a practice known as "atrocity de-mining."

Human Rights Watch urged the judge advocate general to support calls for a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. Calls for a Commission of Inquiry have grown since March 2010 when the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, recommended it in his report to the Human Rights Council.

The letter to the judge advocate general includes an updated Q&A on a Commission of Inquiry in Burmese and English. To date, 16 countries now publically support the proposal, including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Slovakia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

"A UN Commission of Inquiry in Burma would help curtail abuses by the country's warring parties," Ross said. "It would also open the door within the country for serious discussions about justice and accountability."

The elections in November 2010 produced a large majority of parliamentary seats for the military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), in a process marred by intimidation in the lead-up to the polls, widespread irregularities, and laws that marginalized most of the opposition. Since the two national and 14 regional and state assemblies were convened in January 2011, almost all key positions in parliament and the executive have been given to recently retired senior military officers. With a quarter of all seats in national and regional legislatures reserved for serving military officers, and the overwhelming number of USDP candidates, the military has over three-quarters of all seats necessary to enact legislation, marginalizing the small number of genuine opposition or independent members of parliament.

"The November 2010 elections have not changed the nature of authoritarian military rule in Burma or the army's involvement in conflict abuses," Ross said. "The Burmese military needs to reverse course by adopting measures that would bring the daily abuses against civilians to an end."

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