Brang Shawng had never written a letter to the president before, never even dreamed of it. However, he had heard that his country was changing, and that the military junta in Myanmar had given way to a civilian government. And he believed that in this acclaimed new democracy, he could find justice for a 14-year-old girl shot to death.
So, he wrote a letter to Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general, telling him how the army had killed his daughter in what witnesses say was a burst of gunfire. He sent a complaint to Myanmar’s human rights commission, launched just four years ago. He asked for an investigation.
What happened next shattered his faith. He got the court case he wanted — but it was not the army that was put on trial.
Illustration: Mountain People
It was the bereaved father himself.
Over the next two years, he would appear in court more than 55 times for daring to accuse the army of charges it staunchly denies. His ordeal would reflect just how perilous the quest for justice in Myanmar can be because of the considerable power the military still holds, especially over the ethnic groups to which his family belongs.
“It’s completely unfair for a man who lost his daughter to be charged again,” said Brang Shawng, a genteel, earnest man from the Kachin minority. “The army has to admit what they did. I want them to admit that they killed my daughter... It’s important to have the truth, for people to know what happens in this country.”
The story of Ja Seng Ing’s death is backed up by nearly 100 pages of court documents reviewed by The Associated Press, as well as interviews with more than 20 witnesses, residents and human rights advocates who followed the case.
Her father tells it slowly, methodically, almost as if he is reciting the facts yet again about someone else’s daughter, but when asked to talk of his memories, he breaks down into sobs and has to leave the room.
Brang Shawng’s family lives in Kachin Sstate in the north, where jade mining has carved up the hills like giant slices of cake. For all the wealth hidden in the ground, life is rough, even by the standards of one of Asia’s poorest countries. This is a place where soldiers and police roll up their sleeves to get opium fixes, where the courts still rely on manual typewriters and chained elephants haul out cars stranded in the mud.
Here, military rule never went away. The army is fighting the Kachin rebels, who are largely Christians demanding more independence in a mostly Buddhist country. The military is accused of a wide range of human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings, rape, forced labor and the displacement of tens of thousands of Kachins, many of them civilians thought to support the rebels.
When dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 13, 2012, about 80 soldiers had stopped in Hkapant. Ja Seng Ing was on the other side of the village, and her mother told her to stay with relatives there, just to be safe.
BLAST, THEN CONFUSION
Late that afternoon, the villagers heard a huge blast. The rebels had detonated a mine in the side of a steep hill and three soldiers were gravely wounded.
From his porch, Brang Shawng watched the plume of smoke rise skyward. A brief minute of silence. Then an army commander shouted: “Open fire.”
For nearly an hour, the hills echoed with the crackle of guns. Residents interviewed said soldiers started shooting indiscriminately in anger, likely confused by the echoes of gunfire and possibly thinking they were under attack. They rounded up, beat and kicked Brang Shawng and the neighborhood’s 50 other men, witnesses reported.
It was not until later that he found out where his daughter was.
Ja Seng Ing was usually a good girl who did what she was told without protest, went to church regularly and smiled all the time. However, on that day, unbeknownst to her family, she had ignored her mother’s instructions to stay away because she wanted a home-cooked meal. So she, three girlfriends and a teacher carrying her three-year-old daughter headed toward the wooden footbridge about a kilometer from her house.
Then the blast shook the ground, and they started to run. Several soldiers sprinted toward them.
One barked: “Get out of here. Find somewhere safe.”
They sought refuge in an open-air kitchen nearby covered by a blue tarp, while troops began to search from house to house. The girls whimpered. The teacher, Nang San, tried her best to calm them down.
“Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Pray to God. And don’t make a sound.”
When the gunfire finally eased, they heard the voice of a soldier somewhere outside.
“Come out, right now,” he said. “Or we’ll burn everything in this village.”
One of the girls, Jaw Bawk Lu, peeked through the laundry hanging above her head. She saw two soldiers about 6m away, one pointing an automatic rifle. Suddenly, inexplicably, he pulled the trigger, she said.
It is unclear whether the shots were meant as a warning, and at first it appeared they had missed. However, when they stood up to leave, Ja Seng Ing screamed: “I’m hurt. I’m hurt.”
“She was begging us, Please don’t leave me here. Please take me with you,” her friend said.
Roi Nu, another girl who was there, confirmed the soldier shot in their direction. Immediately afterward, she saw the wound on Ja Seng Ing’s left hip. The blood began pooling on the dirt where she lay.
Ja Seng Ing was carried to the nearby house of a deacon, where an army medic stuffed cotton gauze into her wound. She was too shy to let him remove her clothes and search for more injuries.
The teacher urged the soldiers to call the girl’s father. Brang Shawng begged a commander to let his daughter go the hospital, but the commander said he would have to wait for the soldiers to evacuate the area first, according to several people who witnessed the exchange.
By the time Ja Seng Ing arrived at the hospital, about two hours later, her face was pale. She was weak, likely in shock. As the hospital’s only surgeon prepared to operate, he was ordered to a nearby army base instead, his assistant, Kaung Myat San, said.
Army officials could not be reached for explanation and have said only that the girl was injured by a rebel land mine.
When the surgeon returned half an hour later, he found no bullet fragment, no shrapnel and no exit wound, the assistant said. Yet whatever struck Ja Seng Ing’s hip had torn through her and caused massive bleeding.
In the hallway outside, Brang Shawng trembled, hands clasped together in prayer.
“Dear God,” he said softly, “don’t let my child die. Please, please, let her live.”
When the surgeon emerged, he hugged the father.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
Five days later, Brang Shawng was called to Hkapant’s army base, which sprawls across a hilltop visible from most of the town. He was taken to several soldiers at a table.
They apologized for his daughter’s death, he said, and one of the soldiers gave him an envelope containing 100,000 kyat (about US$100).
“‘This is the most we can do,’” he recalled an officer saying.
And then they told him to leave.
Beaten down after half a century of military dictatorship, many people in Myanmar would have taken the money and stayed quiet.
After all, the police still report to a soldier on active duty. The government-appointed human rights commission will not even disclose how many out of thousands of complaints are about the military. And the US and Europe are debating how far they should provide training and military aid because of reports of abuse.
However, Brang Shawng believed that when the junta stepped down in 2011 and international sanctions were lifted, real change was afoot. And so, on Sept. 25, nearly two weeks after the death of his daughter, he wrote a letter to the president.
“We couldn’t understand why the Myanmar army was shooting at innocent civilians instead of protecting us,” he said. “As the citizens of this country, who can we rely on?”
A week later, Brang Shawng penned a similar letter to the human rights commission. And then he waited.
On March 8, 2013, a local government official delivered an envelope to his home that stunned Brang Shawng. It contained a summons to appear in court — for falsely accusing the military of killing his daughter.
“It’s completely unfair for a man who lost his daughter to be charged again,” he said. “I was still in mourning, and suddenly there was this heaviness pressing down on me. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. My head was so hot, I couldn’t think anything else anymore... I thought maybe I should run away.”
The basis of the accusation was his letter to the commission — which had referred the matter to the Cabinet, which had forwarded it to the defense ministry, which had put it in the hands of the army.
When asked about the fact that the commission’s role, however intended, ultimately led to charges being brought, Mya Mya, an official in the complaints division, was evasive. She said it was against the commission’s mandate to have those who complained punished.
“We’re standing against violations of human rights,” she said. “We looked over the complaint, we sent it the Cabinet for necessary action. We actually helped him.”
Asked about the military’s outsized influence in Kachin State, Mya Mya replied: “You should change your mindset. You’re talking about the old government. Now we are a democratic government... There are still some leftover policies, but change has to come step by step.”
Soldiers in Hkapant could not be reached for comment on this story, and several officials in the president’s office said they did not know about Brang Shawng’s letter and so refused to comment. The office said it did not have time to look for paperwork that was more than two years old.
Daniel Aguirre, an adviser to a nonprofit conducting legal training in Myanmar, said the case was representative of everything that was wrong with the system.
“Where do you turn for help?” asked Aguirre, who works in Myanmar for the International Commission of Jurists, a Geneva-based legal advocacy group. “If you have rule of law without human rights, you have the law being used against the people.”
The trial began in early 2013 at the civilian Hkapant Township Court. The first thing Brang Shawng’s lawyer told him was to lower his expectations. In more than 40 cases brought against the army and the government, mostly for land-grabbing, she had never won.
“They never saw him as a father of a slain girl, or even as a civilian,” said Ywet Nu Aung, the lawyer. “They only saw him as the enemy.”
For the first five of dozens of hearings, the officer who accused Brang Shawng did not show up. When the army major first testified, on May 6, 2013, he was accompanied by two dozen soldiers who stood guard outside the courthouse.
A soldier with a pistol tried to sit next to witnesses as they testified; when Ywet Nu Aung asked for him to be removed, the judge merely told him to sit in the audience instead.
Later, the major asked the lawyer, bluntly: “Why are you helping him?”
Another officer who testified saw her at Myitkyina airport and took her aside, saying: “’I know your mother. I know your father passed away... I know where you live.”’
Neither officer could be reached for comment or verification.
The lawyer, who made the long trip to Hkapant dozens of times, said she was always followed by plainclothes police and intelligence officers on motorcycles.
“They were trying to wear us out, mentally and physically,” she said.
During the trial, the army stuck to its story that Ja Seng Ing died in a rebel landmine explosion. The crux of their argument: Nobody actually saw a bullet leave a soldier’s gun and enter Ja Seng Ing’s body, therefore, it must have been the rebels.
Army officials said the three girls with Ja Seng Ing had said nothing during interviews.
However, two of the teens testified that Ja Seng Ing was only wounded an hour after the blast, and after a soldier fired at them. The girls told the AP that they were asked by the army to sign a letter the following day — which none of them read because they were too frightened.
The teacher testified that the army contributed to her death by delaying the trip to the hospital, and then calling away the town’s only qualified surgeon. And nobody — not even the soldiers — testified that they had seen any rebels that day.
The verdict came on Feb. 13 this year.
The judge acknowledged that Ja Bawk Lu had witnessed the shooting. However, he discounted her testimony because she could not identify the shooter and because he said she had not told the military that soldiers killed her friend.
Brang Shawng was found guilty. He was given the option to serve a six-month prison term or pay a fine of 50,000 kyats.
He chose the fine.
Mung Dan, of the Humanity Institute rights group in Myitkyina, said the verdict shows how much the military still enjoys impunity.
“They have de facto authority over the judiciary, the legislature and the executive,” he said. “They can tell them what they want them to do.”
Brang Shawng is still appealing the case, but his family has already made its own verdict clear.
Atop a hill overlooking Hkapant, at the Christian cemetery, his daughter lies buried in a tomb with a wooden cross. The inscription reads, in Kachin: “Ja Seng Ing, Age 14, Peacefully Sleeps in Jesus.”
It is customary to place a portrait at the head of the tombstone, but Ja Seng Ing’s faded portrait, encased in glass, is placed on the side instead, intentionally facing the road, for all to see.
Under the picture, another inscription says: “Ja Seng Ing was shot and killed by the Burmese army Light Infantry 389 on 12th September 2012.”
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