Free Detained Journalists, Ensure Accountability

(YANGON, July 3, 2017) – Myanmar Army soldiers arbitrarily detained and tortured dozens of civilians from a village in northern Shan State last week, said Fortify Rights today. Residents of the village later found the dead body of one of the men who had been taken by the military.

“The authorities should immediately investigate these violations and hold perpetrators accountable,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The army continues to terrorize ethnic communities with torture, arbitrary detention, and unlawful killings while the civilian government fails to act.”

Following recent outbreaks of fighting between the Myanmar Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Myanmar Army Light Infantry Battalions (LIBs) 501 and 503 arbitrarily detained an estimated 250 civilians from Man Lan village, Namhsan Township in northern Shan State on June 24. LIBs 501 and 503 detained residents in a local monastery, separating men from women. Most were held for five consecutive days.

Fortify Rights documented how Myanmar Army soldiers bound, beat, and threatened civilians with death, accusing them of supporting the TNLA. Soldiers deprived the detainees of adequate food, water, and access to toilet facilities. The Myanmar Army also confiscated the civilians’ mobile phones.

Residents of Man Lan village later found the body of one of the men who had been taken by the soldiers.

The majority of those taken by Myanmar Army soldiers were Ta’ang—also known as Palaung—an ethnic minority group predominantly from northern Shan State. Fortify Rights interviewed four survivors of the incident, including three women, aged 27, 51, and 66, and a man, age 27.

Fortify Rights spoke to the 66-year-old mother of 32-year-old Kyaw Aung, the man whose body was found following the incident. She told Fortify Rights that Myanmar Army soldiers entered their home on June 25 at around 11 p.m. and that the soldiers took them by force to the local monastery, where other residents were also detained.

“They took us like animals,” a 51-year old Ta’ang woman told Fortify Rights.

“Mai Mai,” a 27-year old Ta’ang man witnessed soldiers tie and beat Kyaw Aung on June 25. “They tied his arms with rope, and then they beat him a lot,” he said. “After that they took him away in a car, and after that we found his body between Nam Ling and Man Lan village. We found his corpse… He was bleeding a lot.”

When Man Lan residents discovered the body of Kyaw Aung on June 27, he was dead and covered with leaves. Although Kyaw Aung had been wearing jeans and a t-shirt when Myanmar Army soldiers arrested him, eyewitnesses who found his body said that he was wearing the uniform of a TNLA soldier, which is believed to be an attempt to justify the apparent killing.

Mai Mai told Fortify Rights that soldiers accused the detainees of being fighters and described the beating of another Ta’ang man detained in the monastery. He said, “[The Myanmar Army soldiers] used wooden sticks and told him to lie down on the ground, and they beat him. They beat him on his head and legs . . . They repeated again and again, ‘You’re a soldier.’”

“When they questioned the men, they beat us,” said Mai Mai. “The Army threatened us, saying, ‘We will punish your village. We will kill you all. We don’t want to see your Ta’ang faces.’”

On June 28, the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported that several Myanmar Army soldiers and four TNLA soldiers had been killed in clashes following the discovery of a TNLA training camp close to Man Lan village on June 20. The Office of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services reported that the Army found 40 TNLA uniforms, improvised explosive devices, detonators, medicine, and foodstuff at the camp.

On June 27, the Ta’ang Women’s Organization and the Ta’ang Students and Youth Organization—community-based organizations focused on protecting the rights of the Ta’ang people— released three separate publications documenting human rights violations that took place from June 23 to June 26 in the conflict areas, including possible enforced disappearances, indiscriminate attacks on civilians, torture, and forced labor.

Under international humanitarian law, persons deprived of their liberty for reasons related to a conflict must be protected against murder, torture, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. Torture is banned in every context.

The Myanmar Army soldiers’ treatment of civilians detained at the monastery in Man Lan village constitutes torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment under international law, Fortify Rights said.

On June 26 in the same township, the Myanmar Army arrested three Myanmar journalists— Lawi Weng, also known as Thein Zaw, who works for The Irrawaddy and Aye Naing and Pyae Bone Aung, who are with the Democratic Voice of Burma. The Myanmar Army also reportedly arrested two drivers and a monk in their convoy. All are currently detained in Hsipaw prison in northern Shan State, facing charges under Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act and are due to appear before a judge in Hsipaw Township, Shan State on July 11. If convicted, Lawi Weng, Aye Naing, and Pyae Bone Aung and the three civilians face up to three years in prison.

“These journalists were arrested for doing their jobs in a place where the army has a lot to hide,” said Matthew Smith. “No journalist should be arrested for doing their job. A free press is critical for human rights and democracy, and in this case, for ensuring the laws of war are upheld.”

On June 28, The Irrawaddy reported that Lawi Weng intended to investigate the possible arrest and torture of Ta’ang civilians by the Myanmar Army. On May 28, Fortify Rights exposed in a short-film graphic video footage of Myanmar Army soldiers from LID 88 and militia personnel brutally beating six unidentified ethnic men in civilian clothing whose hands were bound. Soldiers in the video threaten to kill the detainees and accuse them of being “Palaung fighters”—a presumed reference to the TNLA. The Myanmar Army soldiers’ identities are fully visible in the footage.

On May 31, the office of Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi announced, “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 rare statement on May 31 with regard to the video, stating that “the military arrested four civilian-terrorists, and some soldiers physically assaulted them,” further noting, “In-Charge officers are investigating the truth.”

At the time of writing, the authorities have not charged the responsible Myanmar Army soldiers or militia personnel for their crimes.

On March 24, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating a Fact-Finding Mission to Myanmar to “establish the facts and circumstances of the alleged recent human rights violations by military and security forces . . . with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims.” In May, 59 Myanmar-based civil society organizations called on the Government of Myanmar to cooperate with the Fact-Finding Mission.

On June 30, the Myanmar government announced that it would not grant visas to the U.N. fact-finding team.

“Serious and grave human rights violations against ethnic civilians are happening on the ground,” said Matthew Smith. “A sizable and diverse contingent of civil society has spoken on this issue. The Fact-Finding Mission would help establish the facts. There’s no defensible reason to deny it access to the country.”

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