Ongoing War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity, Unmet Humanitarian Needs

(Yangon, June 9, 2014)— For the past three years, Myanmar authorities have systematically tortured Kachin civilians perceived to be aligned with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Fortify Rights said in a new report released today. Fortify Rights believes these abuses constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. The government of Myanmar should intervene immediately to end the use of torture in the conduct of the ongoing war in Kachin State and northern Shan State, and it should credibly investigate and prosecute members of the Myanmar Army, Myanmar Police Force, and Military Intelligence who are responsible for the serious crimes described in this report.

The 71-page report, “I Thought They Would Kill Me”: Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar, describes the systematic use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment (“ill treatment”) of more than 60 civilians by Myanmar authorities from June 2011 to April 2014. Members of the Myanmar Army, Myanmar Police Force, and Military Intelligence deliberately caused severe and lasting mental and physical pain to civilians in combat zones, villages, and places of detention in Kachin State. While some impacts of these crimes are irreparable, none of the survivors interviewed by Fortify Rights have received adequate medical care.

“The authorities have tortured Kachin civilians with brutal and inhuman tactics, and those responsible for these crimes have acted with complete impunity for three years,” said Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights. “The government must fulfill its duty to put a stop to these serious crimes and ensure accountability for abuses.”

“I Thought They Would Kill Me” is based largely on 78 interviews conducted by Fortify Rights with survivors and witnesses of torture and other abuses, their family members, aid workers, and KIA officials in Kachin State and northern Shan State. Interviews were conducted in KIA and government-controlled territory, in towns and villages affected by the conflict, and in numerous internally displaced person (IDP) camps.

Kachin survivors described to Fortify Rights how Myanmar authorities tied rope or wire around their necks, hands, and feet, in some cases cutting off circulation for extended periods of time, resulting in loss of movement and sensation. Many were subjected to severe beatings during prolonged interrogation sessions, and some reported having metal rods or bamboo rolled on their shins. In some cases, the authorities tied or laid bamboo across the shins and heads of their victims, and stood or jumped on it.

Myanmar Army soldiers forced civilian detainees to dig what they were told would be their own graves, before releasing them from custody. When eight Kachin farmers survived prolonged blunt-force beatings, Myanmar soldiers forced them to lick pools of their own blood off the ground. Myanmar authorities deprived Kachin detainees of food, water, and normal sensory stimulation, such as exposure to sunlight. Two torture survivors reported to their families and lawyers that they were sexually assaulted in detention, where they remain today. Others were burned with hot blades, stabbed repeatedly in non-lethal, pain-inducing locations, and forced to assume execution-style physical positions while under interrogation.

In October 2013, “Maru Seng,” 45, was tied with wire around his neck, hands, and feet, denied food and water, and beaten severely by Myanmar Army soldiers. He attempted to escape and was shot in the head by a Myanmar Army soldier, only to survive to endure more torture.

“I thought they would kill me,” he told Fortify Rights.

Fortify Rights collected evidence of the alleged torture and killing of three Kachin persons—two civilians and one KIA soldier—while in custody of Myanmar Army soldiers. Photographs on file with Fortify Rights indicate two of these individuals suffered severe beatings to the face and head.

Fortify Rights also documented systematic patterns of unlawful forced labor exacted by the Myanmar Army that invariably featured instances of torture. For example, the army detained 30-year-old male farmer “Tun Din” for 17 consecutive days, torturing him and forcing him to guide them through combat zones in Mansi Township and from village to village.

Fortify Rights shares concerns expressed by UN officials and others regarding allegations of the KIA’s ongoing use of child soldiers, forced labor, and antipersonnel landmines. The investigation by Fortify Rights did not reveal instances of torture committed by KIA authorities.

The Myanmar Army and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have been fighting since June 9, 2011, when hostilities erupted in areas surrounding a Chinese-investor-led hydropower project near Sang Gang village, abruptly ending a 17-year-long ceasefire agreement. In the three years since, more than 100,000 civilians have been forcibly displaced to over 165 camps throughout Kachin State and northern Shan State. The government and KIA have held numerous peace talks in Myanmar, Thailand, and China, but fighting and abuses continue.

“The peace process can’t take hold while soldiers and intelligence officers continue to torture members of minority groups with complete impunity,” said Matthew Smith. “The government should demonstrate its commitment to national reconciliation and immediately intervene to end these abuses and bring perpetrators to justice.”

Torture sessions were typically infused with elements of ethnic and religious discrimination, Fortify Rights said. Survivors explained how soldiers, police officers, and Military Intelligence officers verbally denigrated the Kachin ethnicity and Christian religious identity during torture sessions.

In several cases, authorities threatened to destroy the Kachin ethnicity. One Kachin survivor who was interrogated and tortured by Military Intelligence told Fortify Rights about threats made against him and his community by an official during his detention: “You [Kachin] are our soldiers’ leftover kids, the products of our military expeditions. We will eliminate all you Kachin.” Another survivor was told, “We will kill you, and we will burn the children in the fire and then crush them.” Another was told, “You are Kachin, and we will kill all the Kachin. Even if the women are pregnant, we will kill them.” 

Torture survivors interviewed by Fortify Rights demonstrated symptoms suggestive of anxiety disorders and other psychological impacts of trauma. All survivors endured untreated physical pain and complications as a direct result of the mental and physical harm inflicted upon them by Myanmar authorities. Only one torture survivor interviewed by Fortify Rights received medical attention—he was given a cursory injection of antibiotics. None of the survivors have undergone a physical or psychological examination by a qualified professional.

“The international community needs to wake up and comprehend the severity of abuse being perpetrated against the Kachin people,” Matthew Smith said. “Foreign governments should demand an end to these abuses and ensure survivors get the support they need. Governments and donors should increase financial, technical, and advocacy support for human rights defenders in the country.”

International law bans torture in every context. Torture is defined under international law as the intentional infliction of “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” for specific purposes such as obtaining “information or a confession,” as punishment, as intimidation or coercion, “or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind.” Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment involves the infliction of “significant” physical or mental pain or suffering.

Fortify Rights believes that the instances of torture described in “I Thought They Would Kill Me” constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Moreover, according to the report, Myanmar Army soldiers operated within a permissive environment with respect to the use of torture, and torture appears to have been carried out with the knowledge and consent of senior military officers. Fortify Rights said that military commanders—including senior military officers—could be held liable for torture under a theory of command responsibility.

Stay Updated!

Subscribe to our mailing to receive periodic updates on human rights issues where we work.