Burma’s Soldiers Beware

Military commanders on both sides of Burma’s civil war need to know that they will be held accountable for any war crimes they commit.
December 3, 2014

Author: Matthew Smith
Published by: Wall Street Journal

It didn’t take long for military attacks to resume in Burma following President Barack Obama’s visit last month. Less than a week after Air Force One departed, the Burmese army shelled a rebel training camp in Kachin State, killing 23 cadets. Just days later, it bombarded an area near a camp for displaced civilians, prompting rare public protests in Rangoon and a statement of concern from the U.S. Embassy.

This is the gritty truth of the “new Myanmar.” The story of successful cease-fire agreements and burgeoning democracy is giving way to disillusionment as the peace process stalls and violence escalates.

One obstacle to peace in Burma’s war-torn ethnic-minority states is impunity for human-rights abuses. In the northern reaches of the country, the Burmese army, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and smaller ethnic militias have been fighting a deadly civil war for the past three and half years, destroying untold lives.

More than 100,000 civilians have lost everything—land, homes, loved ones and social-support structures. Deep ethnic divisions and competition for natural resources, including jade deposits valued at billions of dollars, drive the conflict.

Soldiers in the Burmese army have targeted and killed civilians, employed forced labor on the front lines, and pillaged and destroyed properties. Battalions have used men, women and children as human shields, forcing them to walk through landmine-infested jungles between remote villages.

“They pointed their guns at us, and we had to point our faces toward the ground,” a 38-year-old Kachin mother of four told me. She and her children were taken twice by dozens of Burmese troops who forced them to walk through dense terrain in the conflict zone, for no discernable reason other than to protect them from KIA ambushes. “We thought they were going to kill us. We were all crying,” she said.

In June my organization, Fortify Rights, released a 71-page report describing more than 60 instances of torture by the army, police and military intelligence. The government was quick to disavow our findings. President Thein Sein’s spokesperson, Ye Htut, responded that torture isn’t government or military policy, telling CNN the army would “never use torture as a weapon in the conflict areas.”

To his credit, Mr. Ye Htut vowed that perpetrators would be punished “if we find they’ve committed these crimes.” However, to date no one has been held accountable and the practice continues.

More than a dozen ethnic armies have also committed abuses in recent years, albeit on a lesser scale. Several continue to use child soldiers and plant landmines, and some have been accused of executing prisoners of war and abusing civilian populations.

These abuses are hardly new. Harvard Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic recently identified three senior army commanders responsible for war crimes during an offensive in Karen State in 2005 and 2006, including attacks on civilians, killings, and forced labor on the front lines. All three of the named commanders received promotions after the offensive, including Burma’s current home-affairs minister, Lt. Gen. Ko Ko. To date, none have been held accountable.

President Thein Sein’s administration and his “peace brokers” simply avoid serious discussions of human rights abuses and accountability. Let bygones be bygones, they argue.

That’s easy for them to say. Ethnic survivors of abuses have a different view. They consistently tell us they want both peace and justice, and they want the world to know the truth. “We want accountability,” a Kachin woman in the conflict zone told me. “We want to use the courts, but we’ve been stifled.”

If Burma is ever going to achieve a lasting peace and regain the lost trust of its ethnic populations, political and military leaders need to change course. For starters, military commanders on both sides of the conflict need to know that international law applies to their actions, and that they could face arrest and trial in domestic or international courts for any crimes they commit or oversee.

Accountability for war crimes in Burma may seem distant now, but history shows that justice is steadfast. In recent years, those who oversaw wartime abuses in Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe have faced prosecution in domestic and international courts. The same will come to perpetrators of war crimes in Burma.

Current commanders in the country can avoid liability by ordering their soldiers, clearly and specifically, to cease and avoid unlawful conduct and by taking prompt and meaningful action against soldiers who commit abuses. If they do these two things, and refrain from committing unlawful acts themselves, they can’t be held accountable for war crimes.

But in Burma’s war zones today, this isn’t happening. Burma’s leadership and military commanders have some decisions to make. The actions they take in the coming months and years will have momentous implications for their country’s future—and their own.