MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Despite the series of democratic reforms implemented by President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government over the past two years, interviews with recently released prisoners and the families of those who remain in detention in Kachin State indicate that police and military forces continue to torture those jailed on security grounds—this in spite of loud claims from the government that such practices no longer occur.
In the two years since a 17-year ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Burma’s central government collapsed in June 2011, dozens of Kachin men have been arrested after being accused of being KIO members or sympathizers. The relatives of those charged tell The Irrawaddy their loved ones were forced to confess to groundless charges after being tortured for days on end.
Those charged with being affiliated with the KIO have little recourse in a court system that after years of military rule is infamous for being biased in favor of the government and rife with corruption. Most if not all of those Kachin charged with violating Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act and related security laws whose initial trials have been completed appear to have been convicted, according to legal researchers keeping an eye on the court process.
Just keeping track of the outcomes of these trials is a difficult and complicated affair as Burmese courts rarely make their decisions publicly available. Members of the public have also been repeatedly barred from observing KIO-related trials this despite repeated pronouncements from the government that the courts now follow an open process. More than a dozen KIO-related trials remain ongoing but it is extremely unlikely these will result in positive outcomes for the accused, says a lawyer who represents several of them. These trials have continued despite the fact that representatives of the KIO and the president’s chief peace negotiator Aung Min reached a seven-point agreement to lessen tensions at the end of May.
At least 70 men from across Kachin State and the northwestern part of neighboring Shan State remain in jail or are awaiting trial for charges relating to their alleged KIO membership or involvement in the Kachin insurgency, according to Kachin legal researchers who declined to be identified for safety reasons.
Many of these men are in fact poor farmers who have nothing to do with the KIO, their lawyers and relatives claim. Some of those detained under KIO-related charges are not even ethnic Kachin: At least 11 are Shan while several others are of Nepali Gurkha and Sino-Burmese descent. The government has also arrested and charged as KIO members a few men from the Burman majority, Kachin researchers tell The Irrawaddy.
Representing those accused in KIO-related cases is a daunting challenge but this hasn’t stopped Mar Khar, a 30-year-old lawyer based in Myitkyina, the Kachin State capital. Despite receiving next to no pay, Mar Khar has dutifully continued to appear in court on behalf of his clients under circumstances that are far from ideal. According to Mar Khar, nearly all of his attempts to introduce evidence or witnesses that support his clients’ claims of innocence are routinely rejected by the presiding judges.
Mar Khar is perhaps best known for representing Lahtoi Brang Shawng, a 26-year-old Kachin man who was arrested in June of last year by Military Affairs Security (MAS) agents and charged with being part of a KIO bomb plot. Brang Shawng’s arrest occurred while he and his family were living at the Jan Mai Kawng camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) on the outskirts of Myitkyina.
“He was covered in bruises and had cuts and burn marks all over his body. It was clear he had been tortured,” says Mar Khar, recounting the first time he met Brawng Shawng in detention.
In his annual report to the UN Security Council after meeting Brawng Shawng in prison in February, the UN envoy for Human Rights in Burma Tomas Quintana also expressed “serious concerns” that the former mine laborer was “tortured by the military during interrogation to extract false confessions.”
In the weeks after his arrest, Brang Shawng’s physical appearance was so bad that the initial judge presiding over his case refused to accept his confession when Brawng Shawng was first brought before him for allocution. Alarmed at the clearly visible cuts around Brang Shawng’s eye, the judge asked him to remove his shirt, at which point he discovered an audio recorder had been taped to Brang Shawng’s torso. “I was really scared. I couldn’t tell the judge what had really happened because of the recorder but fortunately he found it,” Brang Shawng recalls when describing the bizarre incident which he says was orchestrated by the men from MAS who tortured him.
Just moments after the judge found the device, government agents whisked Brang Shawng away and the judge was quickly removed from the case. His replacement, Myint Htoo, rejected all of Mar Khar’s attempts to get Brang Shawng medical attention during his detention and steered the trial towards its inevitable conclusion when in July of this year Brang Shawng was convicted and sentenced to a three-year jail term.
Brang Shawng’s treatment caused an outrage among the Kachin community. Just weeks after he was initially arrested, more than 1,000 people gathered in downtown Myitkyina to join his wife in an unprecedented protest.
Many of those marching that day were Brang Shawng’s fellow residents of the Jan Mai Kawng IDP camp who just days before had witnessed a disheveled and clearly bruised Brang Shawng being paraded around the camp by government authorities for an official reenactment of his supposed crime. “Seeing him in such bad shape upset many people in the camp,” says Awng Myat, Brang Shawng’s pastor who also serves as a director of the camp.
In an apparent response to the widespread public anger at Brang Shawng’s conviction, President Thein Sein officially pardoned him on July 23, less than a week after the judgment was handed down. He was released along with 12 other Kachin serving time for similar charges.
Brang Shawng is now living with his family again at the same IDP camp where he was first arrested.
“I’m very happy to be free now, but I cannot forgive them for what they did to me,” Brang Shawng says. Though his bruises and cuts have healed, he has numerous scars all over his body as a result of the brutal methods he says his interrogators used to extract the false confession that he was a serving captain in the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
The interrogation sessions were conducted largely in Burmese, a language the 4th Standard-educated Brang Shawng doesn’t speak well. “He is a simple man, he had nothing to do with what they accused him of,” his 40-year-old wife Ze Nyoi explains.
When asked about the extent of his injuries, Brang Shawng lifts up his shirt to reveal a scar just above his navel. “This is where they cut me with a knife,” he recalls. He then lifts his longyi to show dozens of similar scars all over his legs and thighs, the result he says of being repeatedly poked with sharp objects.
Brang Shawng’s ordeal, which he says also included rubbing bamboo polls on his shins, has left him physically unable to work or even carry out simple household chores like carrying water from the IDP camp well just meters away from his family’s hut. Perhaps even more debilitating are the regular headaches and memory loss he now suffers from, an affliction he says was caused by his interrogators repeatedly delivering blows to his head.
His wife—whose very public campaign to push for Brang Shawng’s release was, according to his supporters, a key factor in obtaining his freedom—now worries about how she will support her three children and her husband all on her own.
In a nearby IDP camp located on the grounds of Myitkyina’s Shwezet Baptist church lives the wife of another of Mar Khar’s clients who, like Brang Shawng, was arrested in June 2012. Lashi Lu’s husband Lahpai Gam is currently on trial for a list of charges including those relating to explosives and being a KIO operative. Lashi Lu says her husband is completely innocent but was forced to confess after being tortured by security officials. According to his wife, Laphai Gam’s interrogators went so far as to force him to perform sexual acts on his fellow detainees.
She continues to attend his trial along with the relatives of three other men from their camp, Brang Yung, Zau Seng Awng and Dayau Tang Gun, who were all arrested at the same time last year and face similar charges. Their families also contend that, like Laphai Gam, the other detained men were forced to perform sexual acts on each other in order to humiliate them.
“They told him to do to the other man like he would do to his wife. They forced him,” says Brang Yung’s wife Hkawn Nan. Traveling regularly to the court from the camp to attend her 26-year-old husband’s trial has drained much of Hkawn Nan’s meager financial resources. Though she remains hopeful that justice will prevail, it appears her husband’s only path to freedom is a pardon from the president.
Even being briefly detained by the military for a few days can have serious consequences that can scar a person forever. Across the river from Myitkyina in Waing Moe Township lives Lahaung Hkaung Haung, a 34-year-old farmer who continues to suffer from serious injuries he says were inflicted in late 2011 by his captors from the Burmese military. He says he was arrested on Nov. 6, 2011 at the local village church where his family and about 20 of his neighbors, including women and children from Muk Chyik village, had taken refuge shortly after fighting broke out in the area that morning.
“The soldiers told us to stop crying or they would shoot us,” says Hkaung Haung’s wife, recalling how the arrest took place in front of her and their children.
The soldiers who detained Hkaung Haung were furious because the KIO had just launched a lethal strike on their colleagues that day and held the villagers responsible. But Hkaung Haung and the other three men he was arrested with had nothing to do with the KIO or the attack, he says. Despite his pleas of innocence he was held for three days, during which time he was beaten repeatedly. “They struck me on my head many times till I passed out,” says Hkaung Haung.
Since then, he says he suffers from severe headaches that intensify whenever the weather changes. A strange bump on the back of his head suggests a serious injury, but Hkaung Huang hasn’t seen a neurologist or had a head scan, which are luxuries he can’t afford. Due to the persistent headaches and injuries to his back, he has a hard time working and can barely provide for his family. When The Irrawaddy went to visit him at his small farm, his misery was intensified by a severe bout of malaria. He was too weak to even sit up and spent the entire interview lying in the fetal position on the floor of his small bamboo hut.
“Even though I’m not an IDP, my family has still suffered a lot because of this war,” he says.
Hkaung Haung is fortunate in one sense, however: Unlike two of the other men who were detained alongside him, he did manage to survive his run-in with the military. Neither 51-year-old Hplalaung Lum Hkaung nor his 20-year-old nephew Chayu Lum Haung have been seen since they were detained.
Presuming both are dead, their families already held funerals for them last year.