RANGOON — Burma’s military is responsible for “systematically” torturing ethnic Kachin civilians in what may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, a human rights group said on Monday, the three-year anniversary of renewed fighting between the Burmese Army and Kachin rebels in northern Burma.
Bangkok-based Fortify Rights said such practices are ongoing in Kachin and northern Shan states, where fighting between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Burmese Army has flared on and off since June 9, 2011. In a 71-page report, the rights group said civilians suspected of having ties to the KIA were targeted by the army, police and military intelligence officers.
The report, titled “I Thought They Would Kill Me,” describes a variety of torture tactics employed, including beatings, sensory deprivation, and forcing victims to dig what they were told would be their own graves. Others were allegedly sexually assaulted, burned or forced to lick their own blood off the ground after being beaten, according to the report.
“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,” Matthew Smith, executive director of Fortify Rights, was quoted as saying in a press release. “The government must fulfill its duty to put a stop to these serious crimes and ensure accountability for abuses.”
Fortify Rights said the report was based on 78 interviews with victims of torture and their family members, witnesses, aid workers and KIA officials, from June 2011 to April 2014. The group said it collected evidence that more than 60 civilians were tortured over the period.
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Torture tactics were frequently tinged with an element of ethnic or religious discrimination against the majority-Christian Kachin, the report said, adding that several victims told of threats made to destroy the Kachin ethnic identity.
The report said that while it had uncovered no use of torture tactics by the KIA, 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 report’s release on Monday coincided with the three-year anniversary of a breakdown in the ceasefire between the KIA and the government. More than 100,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since then, with casualties unknown but estimated in the thousands.
The KIA remains one of two major ethnic armed groups in Burma that does not have a ceasefire with the government, despite several rounds of peace talks since fighting broke out three years ago.
Also on Monday, the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand said in a statement that recent fighting—which the group claimed was motivated by a Burmese Army campaign to secure economic gains in the region—“throw[s] strong doubt on the government’s sincerity towards the peace process.”
The association added that at least 70 instances of sexual violence had been documented since 2011, with half of those victims killed as a result.
“We deplore these continuing incidents of rape, and urge that the issue of military sexual violence be addressed as a matter of priority during peace negotiations,” the association said.
Fifty-five organizations worldwide, including Fortify Rights, on Monday issued a nine-point call for action, urging both sides in the conflict to cease hostilities, ensure access for humanitarian aid groups and grant women a voice in peace talks.
Over the weekend, activists around Burma gathered to commemorate the grim three-year milestone, calling on the Burmese military to drop its guns.
“If the army wants peace, [they] should not be fighting up until today. Looking back at the three years of battles, the ethnic army [KIA] has never initiated fighting with the Burmese Army. It is the Burmese Army that has occupied the ethnic army’s posts one by one,” Khon Ja, an activist with the Kachin Peace Network, told The Irrawaddy on Saturday.
In April, presidential spokesman Ye Htut rejected such characterizations, telling The Irrawaddy that “the Tatmadaw [military] only fights to defend itself, and they have been instructed not to attack first.”
Events to mark the third anniversary were held in Rangoon beginning on Saturday. Youth groups in the former capital held signs reading “stop civil war now” amid the singing of songs urging peace, traditional dance performances and testimonies from civilians affected by the conflict.
The anniversary was also marked in Mandalay and Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital, where activists marched 10 miles from the city center to Jaw Pone mountain. Kachin exile communities in countries including Malaysia, the United States, Japan and Australia also planned events.
“Even though the president [Thein Sein] gave an order to stop the war in Kachin, the war is still happening, probably because the commander-in-chief has given the order [to fight],” Phyu Ei Thein, an aid worker who has been fundraising for displaced Kachin civilians over the past two and a half years, said in Rangoon. She added that soldiers on both sides did not necessarily want to fight, citing stories of Burmese Army and KIA soldiers communicating on friendly terms across the jungle streams that sometimes serve as battle lines.
Despite those accounts, Phyu Ei Thein said a far less fraternal dynamic was beginning to set in at the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), some of whom have been without a permanent home since 2011.
“All we can do is to urge them [the IDPs] not to nurture so much hatred toward the Burmese,” she said, pointing out that two of the Burman Buddhist-dominated military’s largest offensives coincided with the Christmas and Easter holidays.
Ja Seng Pan, a Kachin woman who was involved in a performance on Saturday in Rangoon, said her participation was an expression of solidarity.
“We couldn’t help the IDPs financially, but we want to encourage them by showing our support,” she said.
With additional reporting from Nyein Nyein.