BANGKOK (AP) — It sounds like the old, military-run Myanmar and not the reform-minded new one: A feared army fires on civilians indiscriminately, razes homes and rapes women while the government prevents international aid from reaching tens of thousands of displaced survivors.
A Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday says violence and rights abuses have not abated in Myanmar's northern Kachin state despite unprecedented reforms made by the post-junta government in the Southeast Asian country, also known as Burma.
"There's still a long way to go before the people of Burma, particularly those in conflict areas, benefit from recent promises of reform," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The international community should not become complacent about the serious human rights violations still plaguing" the country, she said.
The dire situation in the remote region near the Chinese border casts a shadow over the government's avowed commitment to democratic change as it seeks an end to Western sanctions and a greater international acceptance after years as a pariah state.
After half a century of military rule, Myanmar's army ceded power last year to a nominally civilian government dominated by retired army officers and members of the former regime. Since then, President Thein Sein has surprised Western governments by making several dramatic changes, including opening up next month's by-elections to the opposition, releasing hundreds of political prisoners, signing truces with rebel groups and easing restrictions on the media.
But the fighting in Kachin state, which resumed after nearly two decades last June, stands in stark contrast to those widely praised developments. Skirmishes have continued despite a call by Thein Sein for the army to cease fire and repeated efforts to negotiate a peaceful settlement.
Ye Htut, a government spokesman, said he could not comment on the report because he had not seen it. But he said Thein Sein had ordered an end to army offensives in Kachin to placate violence in the region. He acknowledged sporadic clashes but said army troops were being attacked and "had the right to defend themselves."
Human Rights Watch documented unlawful killings and said soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations for information about insurgents. It said the army has forced men as old as 70 to carry out manual labor at gunpoint, and conscripted teens as young as 14 to fight on the front line.
Troops have also "deliberately and indiscriminately fired on Kachin civilians with small arms and mortars," sometimes simply to force people to flee, the rights group said.
Human Rights Watch staff traveled to Kachin state twice in the second half of 2011, visiting nine displaced camps and interviewing more than 100 people, including one man forcibly held as a porter by soldiers for 19 days. The man, identified as "M. Seng," also said he witnessed two women being raped repeatedly.
"Soldiers would come and take the women and bring them from tent to tent," the rights group quoted him as saying. "We were so afraid and we couldn't watch the whole night. The next morning, the women couldn't walk right ... They walked hunched over. And they were crying."
The New York-based rights watchdog also said Kachin rebels, known as the Kachin Independence Army, are using child soldiers and planting land mines.
So far, the conflict has displaced 75,000 people, leaving many in desperate need of food, medicine and shelter. But delivering international aid to affected regions in rebel-controlled territory has proven extraordinarily difficult.
The government has granted U.N. agencies access to the area only once, in December, when two trucks delivered shelter supplies. They were not able to visit the entire area and have not been allowed to return, Human Rights Watch said.
The aid shortfall "has pressured families to return to insecure villages in order to gather belongings or tend to animals and fields, risking encounters with hostile Burmese army forces and exposing them to anti-personnel mines that have been laid by both parties," Human Rights Watch said.
"Burmese army soldiers have fired upon civilians, including children, threatened them, and abducted them for forced labor. Many villagers have returned home only to find that the army has already destroyed or confiscated their property and belongings."
Aid groups also are concerned their requests to help in the conflict zone could imperil their officially sanctioned aid projects elsewhere in the country, the report said.
"It is essential that support for recent reforms not lead to international complacency about the serious human rights violations still plaguing Burma," the report said. "Legal and political changes are only beginning to make headway and there is a long way to go before all Burmese benefit from them."