Ensure impartial investigation, account for well-being of victims

(Yangon, June 1, 2017)—Fortify Rights welcomes the announcement by the Government of Myanmar to investigate human rights violations by Myanmar Army soldiers following a video that surfaced online last week showing soldiers torturing ethnic men in civilian clothing in northern Shan State. The authorities should ensure a comprehensive and impartial investigation into the Myanmar Army’s use of torture in this case and account for the whereabouts and well-being of the detainees shown in the video and other potential victims.

“It’s encouraging that the authorities plan to investigate this case and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Fortify Rights. “This is a test for the authorities to demonstrate that the military isn’t above the law. There’s no better time than now to start ending the endemic culture of military impunity.” 

Yesterday, the office of Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi issued a statement on Facebook announcing an investigation into behavior depicted in the 17-minute video showing “persons in civilian clothes being physically abused by personnel in military uniform.” The State Counselor’s office added, “The occurrence is being investigated and if any abuses are discovered, action will be taken against the perpetrators according to existing laws, procedures and regulations.”

The Office of the Commander-in-Chief also issued a statement yesterday with regard to the video stating “the military arrested four civilian-terrorists and some soldiers physically assaulted them,” further noting “In-Charge officers are investigating the truth.”

The video, which first appeared on social media on May 27, shows five Myanmar Army soldiers from Light Infantry Division (LID) 88 and one militia personnel interrogating six men in civilian clothing whose wrists are bound. Soldiers question the men about the location of a handgun and other firearms while administering 32 kicks, four punches and slaps, and three violent blows with a helmet to three of the unarmed, bound men. Soldiers in the video threaten to kill the detainees and accuse them of being “Palaung fighters”—a presumed reference to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), which is engaged in armed conflict with the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State. The Palaung, also known as Ta’Ang, are an ethnic minority predominantly from northern Shan State.

Soon after the video emerged online, Fortify Rights published a short film further exposing the video and calling on the authorities to conduct an immediate investigation. On May 28, Fortify Rights published a news release on the video, concluding the actions of the Myanmar Army and militia soldiers featured in the video constitute torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law.

“Torture is never warranted. The question of whether the detainees are fighters or civilians is irrelevant,” said Matthew Smith. “This video should offend the conscience of Myanmar’s leadership and lead to stiff action.”

On Tuesday, Myanmar media outlet The Irrawaddy quoted TNLA Brigadier General Tar Phone Kyaw as saying the incident occurred in June 2015, raising further questions about the whereabouts and well-being of the men detained in the video.

Kachin and Shan civil society organizations have documented torture, arbitrary detention, killings, and other crimes by Myanmar Army soldiers for many years. In 2014, Fortify Rights exposed the Myanmar authorities’ systematic use of torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment during armed conflict in northern Myanmar from June 2011 to April 2014.

Last week, 59 Myanmar-based civil society organizations called on the Government of Myanmar to cooperate with a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission established in March to probe crimes by state security forces in Myanmar. The three-person Fact-Finding Mission includes prominent Indian Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising, Sri Lankan lawyer Radhika Coomaraswamy, and Australian international human rights specialist Christopher Dominic Sidoti. They will present an oral update to the United Nations Human Rights Council at its thirty-sixth session in September 2017 and a full report at its thirty-seventh session in March 2018 on alleged human rights violations with a view towards ensuring accountability. The mission is expected, at minimum, to assess the human rights situations in Rakhine State as well as Kachin and Shan states.

“We encourage the mission to include this case among the others it will look into,” said Matthew Smith. “It’s imperative that the government give its full cooperation to the mission.”

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