By Hanna Hindstrom
Dozens of people were arrested and tortured by security forces in northern Burma last year, for allegedly having “unlawful” contact with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), despite a government pledge to end the practice, a human rights organisation warned on Monday.
A 69-page dossier by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) outlines 36 cases from 2012, where local Kachins have been detained and often tortured by state forces under Burma’s draconian Unlawful Associations Act, which bans contact with the KIA and most other ethnic rebel groups.
Last year, the government’s main peace negotiator, Aung Min, claimed the law would no longer be used to target rebel supporters. But the report warns that Kachin people continue to be “detained, tortured, charged and extorted irrespective of what they have or have not done” on the sole basis of their ethnic identity.
“The problem as we see it today is that the government is very reluctant to take away the arbitrary power that state agencies are operating throughout Burma, and in particular in Kachin state,” Bijo Francis, acting executive director of the AHRC told DVB on Monday. “The impunity enjoyed by state agents in Burma at the moment can be used to silence any opposition.”
AHRC ascribes the ongoing abuses as a systematic and “institutionalised” policy of impunity perpetrated and enforced by the Burmese military. “The military poses the single largest impediment to removing any of these legislations from operation, because they have been misusing it,” Francis told DVB on Monday. “As long as the law continues they can take action against anyone they suspect of being involved in anti-state activities.”
Since a 17-year ceasefire between the government and Kachin rebels broke down in June 2011, dozens of reports have surfaced of arbitrary and unfair arrests of civilians. Lashi Lu Mai told AHRC how her husband, a displaced villager from northern Shan state, was accused of working for the KIA and beaten into submission.
“He later told me that he would have been murdered if he had not made the confession and he would not be home again,” she said. “He also told me how he was hit with an iron bar, hit with the butt of gun, and confined to a cell.”
Another woman describes the arrest of her husband, Lahtaw Brang Shawng, who was accused of plotting a bomb attack last year. “They bound his hands behind his back and began to torture him,” she said. “They hit his head many times and his nose was bleeding a lot.”
President Thein Sein, who is credited for introducing democratic reforms in the former pariah state, has come under fire for failing to stop abuses in Burma’s northernmost state, where a bloody conflict has raged for nearly two years. On Friday, the government announced a unilateral ceasefire, but rebels, who are fighting for greater autonomy and ethnic rights in Burma, say that attacks continue.
In an interview with DVB on Monday, the president’s spokesperson Ye Htut blamed the KIA for ongoing hostilities, including recent attacks on civilians, trains and police stations in Kachin state. “You just can’t sit there and take it when someone’s attacking you. You have to defend yourself – drive them away to a safe distance,” he said.
But Francis insists this is not a valid reason to arbitrarily arrest alleged criminals. “It is not at all a justifiable reason unless you have a mechanism with a clear mandate to investigate crimes independently and undertake investigations independently,” he said. “The crux of the matter is that you have a state agency which is given statutory power to decide who is a criminal and who is not.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross recently inked a deal with the government to resume visits to Burma’s notorious jails, which the agency described as the start of a “new chapter”. But AHRC says the deal is unlikely to effect change in the country’s unstable north, and called for a complete overhaul of the military’s role in public policy and judicial affairs.
Last week, the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission – a domestic body tasked with monitoring abuses in Burma – also criticised the government for failing to provide humanitarian aid to many of the 75,000 people displaced in the conflict. The government has responded that humanitarian aid could be used to “bolster” the rebel movement.
– Additional reporting contributed by Peter Aung.