Author: David Baulk
Published by: The Wall Street Journal

Burma’s democracy icon and recently anointed state counsellor, Aung San Suu Kyi, has set achieving nationwide peace as a priority for her newly elected government, something that has evaded her war-torn country for decades. Ending one of the world’s longest-running civil wars was the cornerstone of her election campaign and a promise Burma’s ethnic electorate desperately hopes she can fulfil.

Convening the country’s many armed ethnic groups to negotiate peace is a daunting task, and trust between ethnic populations and Ms. Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party has always been tenuous. But the biggest threat to peace in the country remains the continued attacks and unchecked human-rights abuses committed by Burma’s own army.

Five years ago, conflict in Kachin and northern Shan states resumed between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese military, ending a 17-year cease fire. Since then, more than 100,000 civilians have been displaced. Many continue to reside in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, surviving only with the assistance of mostly local and national humanitarian organizations.

As offensives by the Burmese military have continued, Kachin and northern Shan states have become increasingly inhospitable for civilians. Communities in the conflict zone recently explained to me how the Burmese army razed villages and pillaged property while continuing to deny safe return home for those displaced.

There have also been reports of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment against Kachin civilians. Fortify Rights documented more than 60 such cases, committed between 2011 and 2014 by members of the Myanmar army, military intelligence and police force. Survivors described prolonged interrogation sessions during which officials beat them, sexually assaulted them and forced them to dig what they were told would be their own graves. The findings are nowhere near exhaustive.

Fear of fighting between the Burmese military and the KIA is compounded by the threat of unexploded landmines that litter the region. Myanmar has the third-highest number of landmine casualties in the world, according to the Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor.

Taken together, these threats have left civilians little option but to eke out a living in IDP camps, relying heavily on assistance from aid organizations in the absence of government support. These same organizations often face extortion, threats and restrictions on their movements in trying to support those affected by the conflict.

In the five years since fighting reignited, the Burmese government and military have flouted their obligations under international law and repeatedly impeded the work of these humanitarian organizations. This implicates the newly elected government as well. Avoidable deprivations in aid continue to bring unnecessary suffering and misery to thousands.

As the conflict across Kachin and northern Shan has intensified in recent months, the prospect of a peace that allows IDPs to return safely to their homes seems distant, and accountability for abuses even more so. Outside the KIA-controlled area, in government-controlled Sumprabum Township, security forces have refused humanitarian organizations access to more than 1,000 IDPs there for more than a year.

The victory of Ms. Suu Kyi’s NLD in the November elections has brought hope. If that hope is to be realized, the new government must take at least three important steps.

First, newly appointed President Htin Kyaw and State Counselor Suu Kyi should immediately authorize unfettered humanitarian access for the United Nations and international aid groups to Kachin and northern Shan states. Upon gaining access, aid agencies should redouble their support for ethnic Kachin and Shan-led aid organizations that have operated in the conflict zones for the past five years.

Second, if the NLD government is going to break with the previous regimes’ legacies of violence, it must make good on the promise to prioritize Burma’s peace process. Not all of Burma’s armed ethnic groups were invited to sign a cease-fire agreement orchestrated by President Thein Sein’s administration. A mere seven groups did so in October 2015 as attacks by the Burmese army continued. Absent were several of Myanmar’s largest armed groups, including the KIA. Without all relevant actors at the table, peace will remain elusive.

Finally, the NLD government must build trust with ethnic populations and nonstate ethnic armies. It needs to publicly acknowledge the scale of abuses by Burmese soldiers against civilians, the depth of discrimination against ethnic nationalities and the continued impunity. If left unchecked, impunity for grave abuses in Burma’s ethnic states will only stifle the country’s development.

This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journa here.

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