Distinction in travel journalism
Is independent travel journalism important to you?
Click here to keep it independent

23 Mar, 2012

Human Rights Watch Says Abuses Continue in Strategic Kachin State

BANGKOK, March 20, 2012 – The complexity of the process that will underpin system-change in Burma was further underscored on March 20, 2012 when Human Rights Watch (HRW) unveiled a report about alleged human rights violations in Kachin state, the northernmost state of Burma, strategically bordering China and home to a Chinese-supported hydropower dam that has become a key focal point in a recent resurgence of fighting.

While the report was intended to pile more name-and-shame pressure on the Burmese government to walk the talk of its reform process, it also reiterated the warnings being conveyed by the Burmese minority groups to investors, especially in the forestry, mining, energy and tourism industries, to be careful about rushing in before the cement has dried.

Addressing a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand HRW Deputy Director for Asia, Phil Robertson said that Burmese government should not be allowed to overlook the abuses of the human rights in Kachin. He said that while it was important to “surf the wave of high expectations and continue to hope for the past, the international community has a responsibility act to end abuses where conflict is taking place and not stand idly by.”

The key issue that arose was about the role of sanctions and whether they should be lifted. Mr. Robertson gave what he called a “nuanced answer”.  He said it was important to “maintain a level of intellectually humility about the conclusions that can be reached about the causality of changes in Burma.” He said “no one can gauge the impact that sanctions are having” in the ongoing change process but that he would rather “give more credit to the people from Burma” for bringing about the changes.

He said HRW acknowledges that there have been a number of key areas of progress, such as the upcoming elections, moves to free up the press and release of some political prisoners. At the same time, he added, “there is a long way to go.” Although HRW sees a role for sanctions, he said it was also necessary to have a “flexibility of approach,” with “a mixture of both carrots and sticks” that can be used to keep the reform process on track.

He said this response indicates that “we are trying to work through what is be happening, the durability of reforms and how to encourage the best possible outcome for human rights and civil and political rights” in Burma.” The bottom line is to recognise the progress being made but maintain the pressure for the Burma military leaders to stay the course.

Mr. Robertson noted that the political reforms themselves were leading to change in southern Burma but that in Kachin state very little has changed and this same report, which could just as easily have been written 5 or 10 years ago, “should also serve as a warning for those who have high expectations” about the process of change.

According to HRW, Burma’s neighbors — China, India, and Thailand — continue to invest in and trade extensively with Burma, especially in the extractive and hydro-electric energy industries. Burma continued to earn billions of US dollars in natural gas revenues, little of which is directed into social services such as health care and education.

China began construction on two energy pipelines from western Burma to Yunnan, including a planned rail link. The building of a series of massive hydro-electric dams on the Irrawaddy River in upper Burma sparked heated domestic debate over its effects on the environment and the ethnic minority population, some of whom have already been forcibly displaced by the project. In late September 2011, President Thein Sein suspended work on the Myitsone dam, the largest in a series of several planned dams. The move was received positively inside Burma, but criticized by the Chinese government.

There are negative impacts of certain other Chinese investments, including agri-business ventures in northern Burma, which have involved land seizures by Burmese authorities, HRW says.

India’s construction of a major infrastructure project for the Kaladan River in western Burma continued in 2011, as did Indian investments in mining projects. Sales of natural gas to Thailand still account for the largest share of the Burmese government’s foreign exchange earnings, which will increase markedly when the Chinese gas pipeline project is completed in 2013.

Backgrounder issued by Human Rights Watch — Date: 7th March 2012

Update situation about the lDPs and humanitarian aid situation on the Kachin-China border

On 9th June 2011, the Burma Army attacked the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in a dispute over control of an area surrounding Chinese-run hydropower projects in eastern Kachin State. This broke the 17-year old ceasefire between the two armies.

Fighting incidents have continued in some areas of Kachin State and Northern Shan State despite ongoing negotiations between the Burmese government and the KIA. So far, no agreement has been reached from the meeting between both sides.

Internally Displaced People number

As a result of the fighting, thousands of civilians from rural areas of Kachin State have fled from their homes either to the Kachin-China border (KIO territory), or to towns or into jungles. These lDPs are mainly farmers, who have fled for fear of fighting, human rights abuses such as forced portering, interrogation and torture, rape and killing by the Burmese military. The majority of the population is women and children.

The number of lDPs has been increasing steadily, and current number is over 60,000- along the China border and in towns. A recent data of local relief committee shows that over 45,000 people in the camps along the border (KIO territory, and some in China side). Also, there are some people fleeing to jungle areas, but no exact figures are available. In addition, there are about 15,000 lDPs seeking protection in towns mainly in churches.

Humanitarian Needs and Responses:

The lDPs in towns, who are mainly sheltering in church compounds in Myitkyina, Waimaw and Bhamo are receiving assistance from agencies inside Burma such as WFP and UNICEF and other local NGOs. The church communities also make a great contribution to the displaced people’s needs. However, according to the relief I committees in towns, non-rice items (vegetables to eat with rice), firewood for cooking, and other general needs are needed.

The lDPs in camps along the border have received hardly any foreign humanitarian assistance. Only once in December, a UN agency team including UNOCHA staff visited Laiza, and also gave a small amount of relief goods to the lDPs. A few other international aid agencies have supported the lDPs along the border. Therefore, a cross-border aid is recommended to assist the lDPs along the border.

To February 2012, KWAT has raised about 150,000 USD from international NGOs and distributed to our partners that are working on relief assistance. KWAT has received more requests from local CBOs/relief committees for funding, and continuing to seek international donors to address this humanitarian crisis.

Specific problems

Shelter: Most of the camps are built with bamboo and tarpaulin sheet for roofing. Some camps (Laiza and Maijayang towns) have been set up in existing buildings. All of the locations are overcrowded. More shelters are needed to build especially in Laiza and Maijayang areas to relocate the people/place (for example, some camps are located in farm land).

Also, some temporary camps are needed to rebuild properly to accommodate the people properly. In some camps nearby laiza (Je Yang camp), there is no electricity and candle is required urgently for the students’ to prepare the upcoming final exam.

As the summer is starting and tropical winds blowing, mosquito nets and blankets are urgently needed.

Food security

Generally, the IDPs in most camps have enough rice for a shorter period (about two weeks to one month). There are also occasional supplies of non-rice items such as pulses/vegetables depending on donations. Food is cooked communally or family unit in some camps. Firewood is a problem for the lDPs in borders because they have to go deep into nearby forest to find it. It is the same problem for the lDPs in towns because it cost a lot of money to buy it, and no donors provide funding specifically for this item.

In some camps cooking utensils such as pot, buckets, plates are not enough. Proper nutritious food especially for elderly people, mothers and children is also needed as they are becoming malnourish.

Health problems: The crowded living conditions, poor sanitation and hygiene, lack of clean water, and insufficient food and nutrition are causing increased rates of illness such as diarrhea and malaria, common cold and coughing, skin disease among the lDPs. Due to the prolong war, difficult situation in the camp and being not able to return home to enjoy their normal lives, depression is very common among the lDPs especially the older people and women.

Water Sanitation Hygiene: In the camps in Laiza and Maijayang town, the lDPs can access piped water. They boil this water for drinking. They also have to share limited tap access for bathing and washing clothes. In other border camps, the lDPs use water from streams for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. It is also the main concern for the lDPs in China side with a population of 10,000 people.

In Laiza, the lDPs use existing toilet buildings, but these are not sufficient. In most camps, they have dug pit latrines near the camps. It is necessary to build more toilets in most locations. Also problems of garbage disposal in Laiza have been reported.

Education: In most of the camps, lDP parents try to send their children to nearby KIO schools. However, there is not enough space and materials at the existing schools. Therefore, volunteers have set up temporary classrooms for lDP children who can’t attend school in some locations. But the space, teachers and school materials remain problem to cover all the lOP children.

Finally, food security will remain concern for the lDPs since they are not able to do seasonal farming and agriculture since last year. Also it is an unpredictable situation that when people can return home safely. Therefore lDPs are needed to provide with food until the situation become stable and the lDPs are able to return home. Assistance will also be needed for their rehabilitation and livelihood.

HRW Media release: Reforms Yet to Reach Kachin State  — Army Abuses and Blocked Aid

(Bangkok, March 20, 2012) – The Burmese government has committed serious abuses and blocked humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced civilians since June 2011, in fighting in northern Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Some 75,000 ethnic Kachin displaced persons and refugees are in desperate need of food, medicine, and shelter, Human Rights Watch said.

The 83-page report, “‘ Untold Miseries’: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State,” describes how the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties, and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people. Soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations and raped women. The army has also used antipersonnel mines and conscripted forced laborers, including children as young as 14, on the front lines.

“The Burmese army is committing unchecked abuses in Kachin State while the government blocks humanitarian aid to those most in need,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. (Editor’s Note: HRW has two deputy directors for Asia, the other being Phil Robertson). “Both the army and Kachin rebels need to act to prevent a bad situation for civilians from getting even worse.”

Human Rights Watch travelled twice to areas in Kachin State in 2011, visiting nine camps for internally displaced persons and areas in China’s Yunnan province where refugees have fled, and has continued to monitor the situation. The report is based on more than I 00 interviews with displaced persons, refugees, and victims of abuses, as well as Kachin rebels, Burmese army deserters, and relief workers.

The Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army (KlA) need to take effective measures to end abuses by their forces, ensure humanitarian access, and permit an independent international mechanism to investigate abuses by all sides, Human Rights Watch said. Renewed Burmese army operations against the Kachin Independence Army began in June in a contested area surrounding a Chinese-led hydropower dam, ending 17 years of ceasefire between the government and Kachin insurgents.

Displaced Kachin civilians described being forced to work on the front lines for the Burmese army, enduring torture, and being fired upon by soldiers. Burmese troops have deliberately and indiscriminately attacked Kachin civilians with small arms and mortars, Human Rights Watch found. Human Rights Watch also found evidence of rape by Burmese soldiers.

Human Rights Watch called on the Burmese government to ask the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an office in Burma with a standard protection, promotion, and technical assistance mandate.

Burma’s newly created National Human Rights Commission has not played an effective role in monitoring abuses in Kachin State, Human Rights Watch said. In February 2012, the commission’s chairman, Win Mra, announced that the commission would not investigate allegations of abuses in the country’s ethnic armed conflict areas due to the government’s efforts to negotiate ceasefires.

“Concerned governments should urgently support an independent international mechanism to investigate abuses by all sides to the conflict in Kachin State and in other ethnic areas,” Pearson said. “An objective investigation into abuses in Burma’s ethnic areas won’t happen unless the UN is involved, and such an effort can help deter future abuses.”

Of the 75,000 Kachin civilians displaced since June, at least 45,000 have sought refuge in 30 camps for internally displaced persons in Kachin Independence Army-controlled territory along the Burma-China border. The Burmese government has only granted UN agencies access to this area once, in December.

Even then, UN agencies were not able to visit several areas where tens of thousands of displaced persons reside. In areas it controls, the Kachin Independence Army and networks of local Kachin organizations have tried to meet growing humanitarian needs, but international support for civilian- relief organizations operating out of Kachin State has been sporadic and inadequate.

Humanitarian needs of displaced persons in Kachin State include food and other necessities, such as medicine, blankets, warm clothing, firewood and fuel, and adequate shelter.

The worsening situation in Kachin State contrasts starkly with hopeful human rights developments in lowland Burma in recent months, including the release of prominent political prisoners, a spate of legal reforms, and greater media freedom. In by-elections scheduled for April 1, the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi will run for a seat in the national parliament.

“There’s still a long way to go before the people of Burma, particularly those in conflict areas, benefit from recent promises of reform,” Pearson said. “The international community should not become complacent about the serious human rights violations still plaguing Burma.”

The Human Rights Watch World Report 2012 Burma chapter, please click here.