Myanmar minorities suffer abuses despite reforms

November 29, 2011 - 6:20 AM
Myanmar Ethnic War

In this undated photo released by Free Burma Ranger, Karen civilians flee the Myanmar suppression by boat in Karen state, Myanmar. Myanmar's military-backed government may have recently unveiled reforms unprecedented in half a century of despotic rule to worldwide applause. But away from the international spotlight, across large swaths of the country, its army continues to torture and kill civilians, gang rape women and turn thousands of villagers into refugees in campaigns to stamp out the world's longest running insurgencies, human rights groups say. (AP Photo/Free Burma Ranger) EDITORIAL USE ONLY NO SALES

BANGKOK (AP) — Deep in jungles far from the international spotlight, Myanmar's army continues to torture and kill civilians in campaigns to stamp out some of the world's longest-running insurgencies.

Human rights groups say these ongoing atrocities against ethnic minorities serve as a reminder on the eve of a visit by the U.S. secretary of state that the reforms recently unveiled by the country's military-backed government to worldwide applause are not benefitting everyone.

Neither the landmark visit by Hillary Rodham Clinton nor cease-fire talks are expected to soon end the plight of Myanmar's numerous ethnic minorities or lead to the greater autonomy for which some have been fighting since independence from Great Britain in 1949.

Aid groups have reported atrocities that occurred as recently as last month — a village leader was killed, allegedly by soldiers, for helping a rebel group, his eyes gouged out and his 9-year-old son buried beside him in a shallow grave. The boy's tongue was cut out.

With minorities making up some 40 percent of Myanmar's 56 million people and settled in some of its most resource-rich border regions, resolution of these brutal conflicts is regarded by all sides as crucial. The fighting has uprooted more than 1 million people, now refugees within their country or in neighboring Thailand and Bangladesh.

"This is the most intractable problem facing the state since independence. I would argue it is more important than 'democracy' as an issue," says David Steinberg, a Myanmar scholar at Washington's Georgetown University.

"Most minority groups want some form of federalism, but federalism is anathema to the military as they view it as the first step toward secession," he said.

While hopes are perhaps higher now than in decades, reports and interviews in recent days from inside the embattled areas are uniformly bleak.

"Even though there is activity (by the government) there has been no change in the ethnic areas. We continue to have widespread human rights violations and attacks on our villages," said Nan Dah Kler of the Karen Women Organization.

The spokesman for the Thailand border-based ethnic group urged that Clinton "keep these facts in the forefront of her mind as she talks to (the government)."

During her three-day visit, which begins Wednesday, Clinton is certain to bring up the issue when she meets President Thein Sein. But she will probably focus on pressing for greater democratic reforms, freeing political prisoners and giving opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi more maneuvering room in the political arena.

A sign that talks on the ethnic conflicts could at least be more forthright than earlier exchanges, is an unprecedented admission that the military may be committing human rights abuses, something blankly denied in the past.

"As you know there are no clean hands in conducting all sorts of war. There may be some sort of crimes committed by government troops similar to other armed forces of the rest of the world, including NATO troops in Afghanistan accused of killing innocent civilians," said Ko Ko Hlaing, an adviser to the president.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press he said such crimes were, however, not systematic and that violators face punishment under the law. The adviser also accused armed ethnic groups of extra-judicial executions, attacks on civilian trains and other human rights violations.

Ko Ko Hlaing said "positive signs" are emerging from preliminary peace negotiations, which he said would be carried out in three steps: with individual rebel groups, all the insurgencies and finally in Parliament.

Mynamar's neighbors China and Thailand, seeking to make their frontiers safe and exploit resources of now embattled areas, are also key players. Beijing has long supported some ethnic groups by giving them outright assistance or letting them use China as a base.

Ratcheting that support up or down has given Beijing added leverage. As Myanmar warms to the U.S., some Chinese foreign policy experts are calling for more support for the ethnic groups to tweak the Myanmar government and bring it back in line.

Mizzima, an India-based exile news agency, said Kachin and government negotiators were meeting this week in China's Yunnan Province, following earlier talks this month with the Kachin, Shan, Karen, Karenni and Chin insurgency organizations.

"There's been no change on the ground since negotiations started, and the prospects for increased violence is high," said Bryan Erikson of Partners Relief and Development, who recently returned from Kachin State where some of the most intense fighting is taking place.

A cease-fire agreement forged in 1989 with the Kachin and other ethnic groups broke down in early June.

In a report and grisly photographs released Monday, Partners detailed a Myanmar army occupation of Nam Lim Pa village, saying it represented a "snapshot" of what was happening elsewhere in Kachin State in northern Myanmar.

About 200 troops attacked the village in early October with mortars and gunfire, killing five people, wounding others and forcing more than 1,500 residents from their homes, the account said. Soldiers looted 250 houses, a U.N. clinic and a Catholic Church.

A least three executions followed. Labang Brang Nan, a 34-year-old civilian village leader was killed because he had been providing food for the Kachin Independence Army. Found half-buried in a shallow grave, his eyes appeared to have been pulled out of their sockets along with other signs of torture. His 9-year-old son was found buried beside him. His tongue had been cut out and he had been shot numerous times in the upper body.

"No one here believes the recent moves of the dictators are sincere but there is always hope that change can come," said a message from inside Karen State, in eastern Myanmar, from the Free Burma Rangers, an American-led group providing humanitarian aid to internal refugees. The Rangers, who operate teams in all the major insurgency areas, said forced labor, use of humans as minesweepers and attacks on villagers were continuing with the army actual reinforcing its positions in some regions.

According to several ethnic women's organizations, gang rapes were also increasing. In a letter to Clinton last week the Women's League of Burma charged that the army views "rape as an important tactic in its ongoing military campaigns to subjugate Burma's ethnic groups."

Although claims of atrocities cannot be independently verified, the United Nations, international human rights organizations and others have compiled a library of human rights abuses beginning not long after the military seized power in Myanmar, also known as Burma, in 1962.

Since then, the fear of Myanmar breaking up has been an obsession with the military, which still plays a dominant role in the year-old civilian government operating under a constitution offering almost no concessions to autonomy for ethnic groups.

Neither is the constitution likely to be radically changed nor are the minorities willing to submit to a centralized regime run by the Burman majority.

Aung Din, executive director of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, says the peace talks are part of an effort to bring all opposition forces, including Suu Kyi's party, into the system it created and controls.

"Once these opposition groups — armed or unarmed — are contained and confined in the system, they are no longer threats for the military and its political system will be strengthened and legitimized," he says.

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Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing contributed to this report.