(New York) – Burma’s armed forces have committed serious abuses against ethnic Kachin civilians in renewed fighting in Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said today. Since hostilities began over five months ago against the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Burmese armed forces have been responsible for killings and attacks on civilians, using forced labor, and pillaging villages, which has resulted in the displacement of an estimated 30,000 Kachin civilians.
On September 30, 2011, Burma’s President Thein Sein suspended a controversial US$3.6 billion hydropower dam project on the Irrawaddy River in Kachin State, which appears to have been one of several factors in the renewed hostilities between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The Chinese-financed project was suspended after growing dissent in Burma over its current and potential environmental and social impacts.
“Renewed fighting in Kachin State has meant renewed abuses by the Burmese army against Kachin villagers,” said Elaine Pearson, 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.”
Fighting between the Burmese army and the KIA, Burma’s second largest ethnic armed group, began on June 9, ending 17 years of ceasefire. The Burmese army first attacked a strategic KIA post at the location of another Chinese-led hydropower dam on the Taping River in Momauk township, Human Rights Watch said. The army subsequently launched a major offensive and moved in hundreds of troops to areas formerly controlled by the KIA. There have since been failed ceasefire talks and an unconfirmed number of skirmishes, ambushes, and battles involving heavy mortar shelling. The KIA subsequently destroyed several road and railway bridges to frustrate the Burmese army’s advance and supply lines. The KIA reportedly began conscripting able-bodied men and women aged 18 to 55 for a two-month military training, in anticipation of protracted fighting.
Human Rights Watch conducted a fact-finding mission to the conflict areas in Kachin State in July and August, visiting abandoned villages and eight remote camps of internally displaced persons. Witnesses described serious abuses committed by Burmese soldiers, including killings and attacks on civilians, pillaging of villages, and the unlawful use of forced labor.
Fearing abuses from the Burmese army, tens of thousands of Kachin fled their villages, Human Rights Watch said. Before arriving at displaced persons camps in KIA controlled areas, several thousand villagers hid from the Burmese army in the jungle, in some cases for a month after the fighting began. Those who were able to visit their homes to get provisions told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers had occupied their villages and confiscated their property and belongings. Some described being held by Burmese soldiers, who interrogated them harshly for information about the KIA, including by threatening to kill them. Interrogations were particularly menacing for villagers who spoke Kachin dialects and very little Burmese.
Human Rights Watch documented the killings of three Kachin civilians by Burmese soldiers in June and is investigating credible allegations of other killings. Villagers told Human Rights Watch that on June 15, Burmese army forces entered Hang Htak village in Man Je township searching for suspected associates of the KIA. A Burmese soldier shot and killed a 52-year-old woman and her 4-year-old grandson in their home at close range as they tried to flee. On June 17, credible local sources told Human Rights Watch that a group of soldiers allegedly shot and killed Nhkum Zau Bawk, a farmer and day laborer, in Kawng Gat Ban Ma village as he stood unarmed with a group of friends at a cemetery. Local authorities reportedly provided financial compensation to the man’s family, but no legal action was taken against the perpetrator.
According to the September 2011 report to the United Nations General Assembly by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Thomas Ojea Quintana, “Allegations of abuses against civilian populations throughout Kachin State include reports of 18 women and girls having been gang-raped by army soldiers, and of four of those victims being subsequently killed.” While Human Rights Watch did not speak to any victims or witnesses of rape, community members confirmed such abuses had occurred.
Several people told Human Rights Watch that Burmese army soldiers fired on them as they were fleeing their village. For instance, in early June, Burmese soldiers twice fired on a 62-year-old Kachin woman and her three young grandchildren in Sang Gang village. She told Human Rights Watch, “In the morning when we were cooking rice, we heard gunfire and we left our food and went to the field, looking into the village the whole day before we fled. When we ran the soldiers shot at us. We were really afraid. We just ran and hid.” She said that after two days in the jungle without basic provisions, they decided to return home to get food, at which point they were fired upon a second time. “We had already left the house and were on our way out of the village … and the soldiers opened fire on us [again],” she said. “No one was hit. When the soldier opened fire it made me shake and I didn’t know what to do. We just ran.”
Under the laws of war applicable in conflict areas in Burma, all sides are prohibited from mistreating persons in their custody, targeting civilians, or pillaging homes and other civilian property.
The Burmese army has unlawfully used Kachin civilians for forced labor, which has long been a serious problem in Burma’s ethnic areas, Human Rights Watch said. Five civilians told Human Rights Watch that in recent months they had been forced to work for the military without compensation; several others knew of family or friends who had had to do so. A 36-year-old mother of six children who fled Lusupa village, a government-controlled area, told Human Rights Watch how she and other Kachin villagers, including children as young as 14, had been commonly forced to porter for the Burmese army. She said that her husband, who remained in their village to tend their crops and check on their home and belongings, was forced to carry out labor for the army twice, in late June and mid-July.
The laws of war prohibit the use of uncompensated or abusive forced labor, including work in combat areas.
Many Kachin recounted previous abuses at the hands of the Burmese army. A 58-year-old Kachin farmer, who said all his possessions had been taken by the Burmese army, told Human Rights Watch: “We lost our homes and properties to the Burmese soldiers several times. That is why I don’t have hope in this situation.”
Recent abuses in Kachin State highlight the importance of establishing a United Nations commission of inquiry into alleged violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Burma, Human Rights Watch said. The UN special rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomas Ojea Quintana, first called for a commission of inquiry in March 2010, and to date 16 countries have publically confirmed their support for the initiative, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and others, as well as Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Pronouncements of political reform in Burma do not seem to have reached the army in Kachin State,” Pearson said. “Ongoing abuses starkly demonstrate that until real steps are taken towards accountability, including an international commission of inquiry, minorities such as the Kachin will be at grave risk.”
Burmese Army Abuses in Kachin State: June 2011
Attacks on Civilians, Forced Labor, and Mistreatment in Custody
- A 51-year-old Kachin farmer from Sang Gang told Human Rights Watch that a government soldier opened fire on him on June 12, despite it being clear he was unarmed: “The soldier and I were around 50 meters apart, and between us was a small stream. The soldier said nicely, ‘Brother, come, come,’ and I pretended to come and then suddenly ran, and the soldier shot at me two times. I hid for one hour near where I escaped. After one hour it was getting dark and I ran. I was afraid of the Burmese.”
- A 48-year-old Kachin woman explained to Human Rights Watch how on June 13 the Burmese army opened fire into Kawng Ra Zup village, which sits in a valley below a mountaintop Burmese army post. “The Burmese soldiers shot their guns, so we were really afraid,” she said. “We don’t know what they were aiming at. The village head said we should run, so we just ran.”
- A 33-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch that before the current fighting she was forced to carry provisions up a two-mile road to a Burmese army outpost while she was six-months pregnant. She said, “I had to do forced labor for the Burmese soldiers many times… [Before the fighting began] we carried rice and other things to [the Burmese army] post and walked back. It took three hours. The path is very steep, we had to climb the mountain and it was difficult to reach. From morning to evening we had to do it twice. The food we brought ourselves and we ate. They didn’t feed us.”
- A 48-year-old woman from Kawng Ra Zup said the Burmese army’s previous use of forced labor and other ill-treatment was an important reason those in her village fled: “Every villager in our village had to work for the soldiers in the last year. And they hit our village head with their guns and they punched and kicked him. They knocked him out. From the road to the post we had to carry rice. We could not refuse to do the work. We weren’t paid anything.”
- A local Kachin carpenter who fled his village fearing attack from the Burmese army explained to Human Rights Watch how he had commonly been forced to work for the army. “I am a carpenter and I know how to make cement and how to build houses,” he said. “When the army needs a weapons store and flagpole and boundaries, they ask me to work on these things. Everything they need, they ask me, but they never pay me the full amount…I cannot refuse to do this work. Sometimes they ask when I am very busy, but I have to do it.”
- A villager from Sin Lum described fleeing to the jungle: “We were afraid to live in the village so we went to hide in the jungle one mile from the village. It was 11 households, 58 people. We lived there for a month ... and when we needed food and rice we secretly went back to the village and then came back. We lived [in the jungle] with plastic bags as shelter. When we were going back and forth secretly, the Burmese soldiers saw us and told us next time they saw us they were going to shoot us. After that, no one went back.”
- A 60-year-old farmer from Sin Lum told Human Rights Watch said that before he fled he was interrogated and threatened on a daily basis by the Burmese army, suspicious of his family’s ties to the KIA. Fearful for his security, he finally fled to a displaced persons camp on July 23. “The soldiers shot their guns four times to the ground and threatened me and asked, ‘Where is your son? What is he doing?’ I can’t speak Burmese well. I just told them I didn’t know.... The soldiers would come in the daytime. Everyday [in July] they came and asked me questions and interrogated me, sometimes once, sometimes twice.” This farmer described how in the past the army had forced him to porter several times, repeatedly beating and mistreating him. He told Human Rights Watch that in the early 1990s a Burmese soldier cut his throat, leaving a large scar that left him permanently fearful of the army’s return.
- A 30-year-old woman from Sin Lum told Human Rights Watch that she endured the same interrogation by the military every day for several weeks before she finally fled on July 15: “Every day the soldiers came and asked, ‘Do you have a guest? Do you have a KIA soldier?’ Every day they came and talked like that.…We couldn’t sleep at night, whether the soldiers came or not.… At our house, at least three soldiers per day came and checked and asked questions since the fighting started. They would ask many questions. This made us afraid.”
- Another villager told Human Rights Watch, “I was very afraid when they [soldiers] came and asked questions. I was afraid they would kill us.”
Property Confiscation and Destruction
- A 65-year-old Christian pastor who fled his village on June 10 told Human Rights Watch: “The soldiers took all of our belongings. They took 18 motorbikes, one rice mill, and all the buffalo, pigs, chickens, everything. Some people were going to build a house and the soldiers took all their materials. I don’t know how many soldiers are there now, but when the fighting started there were 500 soldiers who came, and now they are living in the village. They are living in our houses.”
- A 58-year-old woman who fled her home in Sang Gang was sobbing with despair when she told Human Rights Watch that her family had lost everything after the Burmese army entered her village on June 9: “My friends and I [secretly] returned to the house to give the pigs and chickens some food, and when we arrived all the houses [in the village] were messy and destroyed. We were very afraid and we wanted to take our food but we could not. Some villagers were in the jungle. We joined them … and then came here [a displaced persons’ camp]. If we went to live in our village, we think we’d be beaten or tortured by the [Burmese army] soldiers. There are many civilians in our village sympathetic to the KIO [Kachin Independence Organization], so if we went back and stayed we would be killed.”
- In mostly Buddhist Burma, the majority of Kachin are Christian. A 65-year-old Kachin villager from Sang Gang told Human Rights Watch that when the fighting started in June 2011 the Burmese army uprooted a large Christian cross from a hilltop regarded by the villagers as sacred, and used it as a stand for their weapons. The villagers had planned to eventually construct a church on the site. “We villagers made a large cross for the [proposed] church [on the hilltop],” he said, “and the Burmese soldiers took it out of the ground and used it to prop up their big machine guns.”
The renewed conflict in Kachin State is rooted in a long-standing political dispute and large-scale economic interests. In 1994, after decades of brutal fighting and widespread human rights abuses, the KIO and the Burmese military government signed a ceasefire agreement granting the KIO political autonomy over a Special Region in Kachin State, ending the fighting, and granting some latitude for the expansion of humanitarian assistance and development in the area.
Nearly every Kachin villager interviewed by Human Rights Watch described painful histories of forced labor, torture, killings, and other abuses by the Burmese army before and after the 1994 ceasefire. The Kachin, who are predominantly Christian in largely Buddhist Burma, also spoke of past instances of religious repression, which contributes to the collective fears of persecution and widespread feelings of ethnic and religious discrimination among displaced Kachin communities.
- A 36-year-old woman from Hka Ya village told Human Rights Watch she was first subject to forced labor in 1983, at age 8. When she fled to escape forced portering for the Burmese army, soldiers shot at her and her aunt: “When I was 8 years old I had to carry things many times, and with the old people I secretly went and ran away into the forest, and when we ran the soldiers fired their guns at us....We didn’t get hit.”
- A 54-year-old farmer from Sin Lum said that since the 1970s he had been forced to porter for the Burmese army “around 70 to 80 times, at least,” and that he had “witnessed more than a hundred killings by Burmese soldiers. I can’t even say how many. It’s been so many.”
- A 58-year-old Baptist Christian farmer from Maisakba told Human Rights Watch how on three occasions from 2000 to 2009 the Burmese authorities forbade his community from constructing a new Christian church, in part because the proposed structure was in the shape of a cross. “The Burmese authorities banned this construction project,” he said. “They wanted to avoid the religious symbol, the cross.… All three times we were rejected.” A 48-year-old Roman Catholic villager from Loimawkyang likewise explained how in 2000 his community was forbidden from constructing a new church.
In 2008, Burma’s military government announced that all armed groups under ceasefire agreements would have to transform into Border Guard Forces under the direct control of the Burmese army, as stipulated in the 2008 Constitution. The KIO rejected the proposal.
In October 2010, the Burmese state-run media for the first time since 1994 referred to the KIA as “insurgents” as opposed to a “ceasefire group”. The Kachin were barred from registering political parties or independent candidates in Burma’s November 2010 elections, pro-KIO candidates were removed from the ballots, and tens of thousands of Kachin in KIO-controlled areas were effectively barred from voting.
On June 9, 2011, the army entered and attacked KIA-controlled territory in Sang Gang and Bum Seng villages near the Taping #1 hydropower dam on the Taping River. The fully constructed Taping #1 dam is one of two proposed dams on the Taping River in Burma. It is a project led by China Datang Corporation in partnership with the Burmese Ministry of Electric Power. According to state-controlled media, the Burmese army’s offensive was an effort to consolidate power in the area and provide security for the hydropower dam. The KIA denied that the dam was ever under threat.
The recently suspended Myitsone hydropower dam at the confluence of the Mali and N’Mai rivers on the Irrawaddy in Kachin State also appears to have been a factor in the conflict. On March 16, 2011, the KIO sent a letter, a copy of which was obtained by Human Rights Watch, to Chinese President Hu Jintao requesting that the Chinese authorities stop construction of the Myitsone dam because of several social and environmental concerns. The letter specifically named China Power Investment and the Burmese company Asia World Co. Ltd. as investing parties. The KIO wrote that it had informed the Burmese government it would not be held responsible if civil war broke out because of the dam project. Less than three months later, war broke out.
The fighting in Kachin State coincides with an increase in fighting in neighboring Shan State, where the Burmese government also has several economic interests, including dual transnational oil and gas pipelines to China, which will pass through territory claimed by the KIA and the Shan State Army– areas populated by a mix of Kachin, Shan, Burmese, and ethnic Chinese.