(New York) – The Burmese military and ethnic armed groups in northern Burma should commit to protecting civilians and expediting aid in the face of escalating rights abuses and civilian displacement, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 17, 2016, Burmese army forces captured a key stronghold of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) on Gidon mountain in Kachin State. Government airstrikes and shelling were confirmed to have hit close to several camps for internally displaced people near the KIA headquarters of Laiza, causing damage to shelters and forcing the evacuation of more than 400 people.

A soldier from the Shan State Army-South looks on next to a sniper during a military parade celebrating the 69th Shan State National Day at Loi Tai Leng.

© 2016 Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

“While international attention has rightly focused on the crisis in Burma’s Rakhine State, expanded fighting in northern Burma has resulted in a spike in rights abuses and civilian displacement,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “There is a critical need for the army and armed groups to end abuses and ensure civilian protection, especially for highly vulnerable villagers and displaced people close to the front lines.”

On November 20, armed groups comprising the Brotherhood of the Northern Alliance – the Kachin Independence Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), Ta-ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) – carried out attacks against the police, firing unguided rockets into civilian areas near the Burma-China border town of Muse and other locations on the main highway. The Burmese government said that 10 civilians died in these attacks. The alliance also seized the town of Mong Ko on the Chinese border for several days before being driven out in early December by airstrikes from helicopter gunships, jets, and heavy artillery.

The military has committed serious violations of the laws of war in Kachin and Northern Shan States, including summary executions, torture and ill-treatment, forced labor, and looting of civilian properties. Ethnic armed groups have also committed laws-of-war violations, including summary executions, abductions and forced recruitment of civilians, and indiscriminate firing into civilian areas. Many of these abuses on both sides are apparent war crimes.

Human Rights Watch research in August and October documented numerous abuses, including the summary executions of seven men in the town of Mong Yaw in Northern Shan State in June. The army admitted killing five of the men, and after a criminal investigation a court martial convicted seven officers and ranking soldiers, sentencing them to five years in prison.

Fighting in Northern Shan State has steadily increased since 2009, particularly in Kyaukme, Hsipaw, and Namtu townships. It has involved various ethnic armed groups that have fought each other, the military, and pro-government militias. The forces have vied over territory and the drug trade and its various revenue-raising enterprises.

There is a critical need for the army and armed groups to end abuses and ensure civilian protection, especially for highly vulnerable villagers and displaced people close to the front lines.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

As a result of this fighting, villagers have become displaced for weeks or months before returning to their homes; in some cases, families have been displaced several times over the year. Police officials in Muse, Northern Shan State, have estimated that since the attacks on November 20, there have been 170 clashes, with fighting in Muse again reported on December 20.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Rangoon reported that between 2,000 and 4,000 people have been internally displaced by the recent fighting in Northern Shan State and an estimated 15,000 refugees have crossed into China. About 100,000 people remain displaced by the conflicts in Kachin and Northern Shan States since heavy fighting began in 2011. Many small settlements for internally displaced people are in areas of active conflict, increasing their vulnerability. Since early 2016, aid organizations have reported increased restrictions by military authorities on movement and access to displaced populations in Kachin and Northern Shan States.

An OCHA spokesperson told The Irrawaddy magazine that:
 

Humanitarian access to conflict areas in Myanmar is currently worse than at any point in the past few years. Predictable, timely humanitarian access is vital for organizations to ensure that the needs of all affected people are adequately met and that protection issues are being addressed. Unfortunately, our ability to reach people who depend on humanitarian assistance in Kachin State is getting worse not better.

On December 12, the United States embassy in Rangoon issued a statement on fighting in Kachin and Northern Shan States calling for “restraint from all sides and urging immediate, unfettered humanitarian access to all those affected by conflict throughout the country.” This followed a December 1 statement from several local nongovernmental organizations and international relief organizations based in northern Burma urging the “removal of all impediments and restrictions, formal or informal, to the movement of humanitarian aid including personnel, goods, and services to ensure timely response to humanitarian needs.”

The existing regional peace process has seen little progress. Three Northern Alliance members – the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Ta-ang National Liberation Army, and the Arakan Army – have been excluded from the official ceasefire process.

“Nongovernmental groups in conflict areas in Burma’s north are routinely documenting serious abuses with very little action by the central government to ensure that abuses stop and civilian protection becomes a priority,” Adams said. “Burma’s many friends and donors should demand full and unfettered access for humanitarian groups and that all parties facilitate the delivery of urgently needed aid.”