Myanmar’s Tainted Democratic Transition

July 3, 2014

Author: Matthew Smith
Published by: Al Jazeera America

Sitting on the floor in an overcrowded displacement camp in Myanmar’s war-torn Kachin state, a soft-spoken 45-year-old farmer explained how security forces first tortured him with his hands and legs tied to a wooden chair.

“They didn’t give me food or water, and I couldn’t use a latrine,” he recalled.

Soldiers from the Myanmar army beat Maru Seng (not his real name) and accused him of being a fighter in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the country’s second largest non-state ethnic army. Maru Seng eventually wriggled free, but he was shot in the head while fleeing past abandoned rice paddies. He survived his wounds only to be dragged away and tortured again.

“They tied bamboo on my shins, kicked my chest and screwed a sharp stick into my side,” he said, pointing to his wounds. “I thought they would kill me.”

This case is hardly unique in Myanmar. While much of the world swoons over the Southeast Asian nation’s newfound political and economic liberalization, a violent war in Kachin rages into its fourth year. The decades-long conflict between the Myanmar army and the KIA reignited in June 2011, ending a 17-year ceasefire and displacing more than 100,000 civilians to 165 camps in Kachin and northern Shan states. A wealth of evidence, including reports by Human Rights Watch, the Women’s League of Burma and the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights, indicates that state security forces have raped, killed and used forced labor with impunity.

The use of torture against opponents has been a mainstay in the conflict. My organization, Fortify Rights — an independent human rights advocacy group — documented more than 60 instances of torture perpetrated from June 2011 to April 2014 by members of the Myanmar army, police force and military intelligence. The abuses were meted out in villages, combat zones and detention centers in the limited areas we were able to visit.

For example, a group of eight Kachin farmers told Fortify Rights they were beaten in November 2012 during days of interrogation sessions and then forced to lick pools of their own blood off the ground. Before their release from custody, others were made to dig what they were told would be their own graves. Some Kachin detainees were deprived of food, water and sunlight, while others recounted tales of repeated stabbings or searing burns with hot blades. In some cases, state agents allegedly rolled metal rods or bamboo over victims’ shins — a pain-inducing technique employed in Myanmar for decades.

Maru Seng, who could barely walk when the army released him, was the only torture survivor interviewed by Fortify Rights who received medical treatment. A nurse affiliated with the government gave him a cursory injection of antibiotics, he said.

The KIA’s hands are not clean either. While our investigation did not reveal the use of torture by KIA authorities, the armed opposition continues to use child soldiers in violation of international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Myanmar is a party. The group also continues to lay antipersonnel land mines in civilian and combatant areas, posing serious threats to public safety.

The ongoing abuses by the Myanmar army constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, but little, if anything, has been done to stop them. Publicly, President Thein Sein says his country needs to make peace in the ethnic states, some of which have endured civil war for more than 60 years. But his government’s failure to stop serious war crimes — let alone credibly investigate and prosecute those responsible — is a cause for concern.

If Thein Sein is serious about forging peace and reconciliation in Myanmar, he should immediately intervene to put an end to torture and other abuses in the northern states. In addition, perpetrators of the ongoing violence must be held accountable, regardless of rank or position within the government security apparatus. One way to do that would be to support an independent inquiry that includes international investigators. The government should also ratify without delay the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The U.N. and other humanitarian aid agencies operating in Kachin state should continue to support local aid workers and immediately ensure that survivors of trauma and abuse, and their families, can access sustained, appropriate care. The government should also open up more humanitarian spaces and facilitate aid workers’ lifesaving efforts.

Meanwhile, the international community should adopt a more clear-eyed approach to Myanmar. Western diplomats eschew efforts to end the culture of impunity in the country, fearing it will stall the reform process. This is an entirely wrong-headed view.

Ending impunity comes in many forms but typically requires at least a proper accounting of the facts. As such, foreign governments should press Myanmar to set up an independent inquiry into ongoing wartime crimes in ethnic states, and redouble support for the country’s human rights defenders, most of whom are working under demoralizing conditions with limited resources.

Ultimately, high praise for thin reforms is no way to promote democracy or the rights of Myanmar’s least advantaged populations. If the country is to continue to move forward, impunity and human rights violations can no longer be overlooked.