Matthew F. Smith is a consultant to Human Rights Watch and author of the organization’s upcoming report “Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State.”
International optimism toward Myanmar is at a fever pitch. The government is allowing the democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to run in parliamentary by-elections in less than two weeks, hundreds of former political prisoners now walk the streets, and media censorship has been relaxed. Governments and policy makers around the world are rightly impressed.
But how far has the Burmese government really progressed on human rights?
In the remote, rugged mountains of the northern Kachin State, the Burmese Army has been engaged in a brutal war with the Kachin Independence Army, K.I.A., since last June, breaking a 17-year cease-fire agreement. In its renewed military operations against the K.I.A. — Myanmar’s second-largest armed rebel group, which has existed for 51 years — the army has attacked ethnic Kachin civilians and villages, pillaged properties, and committed severe abuses.
I have traveled twice to the conflict areas, spending more than six weeks interviewing more than 100 people. Burmese soldiers have raped Kachin women, tortured civilians, used forced labor on the front lines, and opened fire on villagers with small arms and mortars, causing tens of thousands to flee.
“It was intended that way,” a Burmese Army deserter told me after explaining how his battalion had shelled a village to disperse civilians.
One 16-year-old Kachin boy explained how he and his 14-year-old brother had been tortured by the Burmese Army for information about the K.I.A., and then forced to porter supplies on the front lines.
“They pointed the knife against my stomach and they put it on my brother’s throat,” he said. “We were asked repeatedly where the K.I.A. is and in which house the weapons are hidden, and then the soldier said, ‘If you don’t show us and don’t give us the answers, then you will be killed and your hands will be cut off.’ And then we were tied up.”
All told, the conflict and abuses have caused the displacement of approximately 75,000 Kachin since June, and all while the world applauded the Burmese government’s reform efforts far from the battlefield. Of those displaced, an estimated 45,000 fled to 30 makeshift camps in K.I.A.-controlled territory along the Myanmar-China border, where the Burmese authorities have denied them access to international humanitarian aid.
President Thein Sein has granted U.N. agencies humanitarian access to the area only once, in December, six months after the conflict began. Grassroots organizations are providing aid but are in need of international support. Items like food, medicine, blankets and warm clothing are in short supply.
The K.I.A. has also been involved in serious abuses, including using child soldiers and widespread sowing of antipersonnel mines. When hostilities finally cease, the mines will complicate the safe return of displaced civilians to their villages. Childhoods, lives and limbs have already been lost.
This situation stands in stark contrast to the dominant narrative on Myanmar today. Many of the country’s people and the international community are hopeful for a better future. Thein Sein has even publicly vowed to end ethnic conflicts, famously telling Parliament earlier this month that he wanted to help ethnic young people “who had brandished guns” to use laptops.
Nevertheless, the plight of the Kachin is worse than it has been in two decades. Thein Sein’s government is not only failing to protect their rights, it is actively violating them.
U.N. member states should continue to back reform and reformers in Myanmar. As part of that effort, an international mechanism should be created to investigate human rights abuses in the ethnic areas and throughout the country. The presence of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the ground to monitor and investigate abuses would be a good start.
Objective investigations into wartime abuses will not come from the Burmese government now or anytime soon. The military still wields significant political power by law, and the nascent national human rights commission lacks independence and is restricted by the same self-censorship that has plagued Myanmar for decades. An independent judiciary will take years, perhaps decades, to establish.
Meantime, the government should be pressed to grant humanitarian agencies unfettered access to all internally displaced populations in need, including those in the conflict zones.
Now is a crucial time for Myanmar’s ethnic minority populations. Ignoring their plight for fear of disrupting reforms will only stifle development and democracy in the long run.