Myanmar’s security forces “systematically” torture Kachin civilians in the country’s war-torn Kachin and northern Shan states, a report said Monday, as the ethnic minority group marked the third year of renewed hostilities between the military and a rebel movement fighting to win greater autonomy for the community.
Military and police frequently subject Kachin civilians to torture, including tying rope or wire around their necks, hands and feet, severe beatings, and mock executions during interrogation sessions, according to the report by Fortify Rights, a human rights group based in Southeast Asia and registered in Switzerland and the United States.
“Fortify Rights believes the abuses documented in this report may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity under international law, and at the time of writing the Myanmar government and military authorities have failed to credibly investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes,” the group said.
“The similarities in incidents of torture documented in disparate locations during a three-year period indicate that torture was carried out as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population with the backing of the state.”
The report titled “I Thought They Would Kill Me: Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar" is based on interviews with survivors and witnesses of torture and abuse, and their family members, in Kachin and Shan states, as well as with aid workers and officials from the rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
It highlights the use of “torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment” against more than 60 civilians in the region from June 2011—when clashes resumed between the military and the KIA after the breakdown of a 17-year cease-fire agreement—to April 2014.
The United Nations says more than 100,000 Kachin have been displaced since the fighting erupted three years ago, and the accusations of torture against civilians raise questions about whether the military is as committed to political and other reforms announced by President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government, which took power in 2011 after decades of junta rule.
In addition to being bound during interrogations—which often led to cutting off blood circulation and a loss of movement and sensation—and beatings, some Kachin civilians reported having metal rods or bamboo rolled on their shins, or tied to their heads and jumped on by their captors, the report said.
“Myanmar Army soldiers forced civilian detainees to dig graves, telling them these were intended for them, only to release them afterward,” it said.
“Myanmar authorities deprived detainees of food, water, and normal sensory stimulation, such as access to sunlight.”
Others interviewees reported sexual assault in detention, being burned with hot blades, stabbed repeatedly in nonlethal, pain-inducing locations, and being forced to “assume execution-style physical positions while under interrogation.”
Motives for torture
According to the report, security forces targeted civilians with a perceived sympathy for the KIA for torture in an attempt to elicit military information, but also as “retribution for battlefield casualties” inflicted by the rebel army, and often exhibited elements of ethnic and religious discrimination during the sessions.
Fortify Rights quoted 27-year-old farmer Naw Din, who said that “after the [Myanmar Army] soldiers were defeated elsewhere, they came back to the village, and that’s when we were tortured.”
Other survivors told the group that army officials denigrated their Christian religion and threatened to “eliminate all you Kachin,” “burn the children in the fire and then crush them” and that “even if the women are pregnant, we will kill them.”
While all instances of torture documented by Fortify Rights were perpetrated against Kachin males, the group noted that Myanmar NGOs have documented “widespread rape and sexual violence directed at women” in the region since the outbreak of hostilities—accounts of which were included in a report to the U.N. Security Council by U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon in March this year.
The investigation by Fortify Rights did not reveal instances of torture committed by KIA authorities, but the group did express concerns regarding allegations of the rebel army’s ongoing use of child soldiers, forced labor, and antipersonnel landmines.
On Monday some 6,000 Kachin held a ceremony commemorating the third anniversary of the renewed conflict—marching 10 miles (16 kilometers) from the Kachin state capital Myitkyina to a Baptist church for a prayer meeting.
Congregation member Lamar Yaw told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the event called for peace and equal rights for the Kachin community, which follows Christianity unlike the country’s mostly Buddhist population.
“We have hope and expectations that God will save us from the suffering we have faced for three years,” Lamar Yaw said.
“This is a special prayer to God describing our suffering. We ask God to give us equal ethnic rights and to let the government authorities know what our community needs and wants.”
The same day, around 50 poets read works of peace during a ceremony in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon to coincide with the event in Myitkyina, and which also featured an exhibition of 250 paintings by internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Kachin state.
Thitsani, a Yangon-based poet, told RFA that in addition to calling for peace, the event was meant to draw attention to the suffering of those displaced by the renewed conflict.
“There are many troubles in the refugee camps [in Kachin state], such as [lack of protection from] bad weather, as well as inadequate food and health care. Children also cannot go to school,” he said.
“We are very sad to hear about and see their suffering. That is why we participated in this event to seek peace.”
The KIA and more than a dozen ethnic armed groups are currently involved in talks to form a nationwide cease-fire agreement with the government which have dragged on for months following various demands pushed by some of the groups, including their role in a federal army.
The talks had also been bogged down by clashes between the KIA and the military in recent months but the government hopes to have a formal signing of a nationwide cease-fire agreement as soon as possible.
Ethnic groups have sought a federal system since Myanmar won its independence after World War II, but the former military government had seen local autonomy as tantamount to separatism.
Decentralizing power from areas of Myanmar that are home to some of the country’s largest minorities would likely require amending the constitution, which Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) and rights groups have criticized as “undemocratic.”
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.