Tue, Dec 20, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Deep in the jungle, Myanmar’s law-breaking war is unabated

Kachin locals cite military brutality and the use of toxic gases, abuses that are being overshadowed by the country’s drive for political reform and respectability

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, RUILI, MYANMAR

The villagers scattered as machine guns raked the darkness, fleeing from the Myanmar government troops into the thick of the jungle. When day came, they crept from their hiding places to find each other.

Nu La could not see his wife until he followed the wail of their two-week-old baby. Her body lay close to her son, between two large rocks, slumped to the right. The slash wound that killed her ran all the way from one side of her chest to the other.

The mother of four was a casualty of a brutal six-month conflict between the government and ethnic minority rebels from Kachin State, a state in northern Myanmar bordering China.

This is a war that has killed and maimed countless civilians and caused 30,000, probably more, to flee, yet has gone almost entirely unnoticed, as the outside world chooses instead to focus on the possibility of a thaw and rapprochement with the generals. As US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited the country last month — and as British Foreign Secretary William Hague prepares for a rare official visit to Myanmar early in the new year, fighting has intensified in Kachin.

“There’s so much focus on political reforms from the international perspective, but human rights abuses that are continuing are being ignored. It doesn’t fit into the narrative,” said Lynn Yoshikawa of Refugees International, who visited the region this month.

The government announced a ceasefire last week, but sources in Kachin areas said clashes continued. Among the allegations made by Kachin civilians interviewed along the China-Myanmar border were:

‧ Troops attacked villages without warning, injuring and killing civilians.

‧ Numerous civilians vanished in areas occupied by the military.

‧ Soldiers pillaged homes and forced villagers to carry away their plunder.

‧ Troops subjected men to brutal interrogations.

‧ Chemical agents were used around one village, possibly to push people out of the area.

Groups, including Human Rights Watch, Physicians for Human Rights and Partners Relief and Development, have also gathered numerous accounts of abuses. Organizations say that while the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) has also committed violations, government soldiers are responsible for the vast majority.

“Troops know they won’t be held accountable for serious violations of the laws of war,” Human Rights Watch Myanmar researcher David Mathieson said, adding that similar military behavior had been documented around the country. “It’s like a set menu of abusive practices: forced labor, torture and the destruction of property and livelihoods.”

The long-running conflict is one of many between the Myanmar state and ethnic groups that reignited two years ago as the government sought to extend its hold. Skirmishes between government troops and the KIA erupted into outright conflict in June, ending a 17-year ceasefire.

Villager Nu La fled with his family, but they were caught while sheltering in a jungle camp overnight.

Troops called: “Don’t flee.”

The families were too frightened to comply.

“It was like a battle. Then the machine guns came,” Nu La said. “The shooting was for around 15 minutes. They shot and we fled ... We were all afraid and ran in different directions.”

He wept as he described finding his wife of 15 years the next morning. Beside him, their eight-year-old daughter dandled her baby brother in an imitation of motherhood.

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