The ugly face behind 'open' Myanmar's charm offensive

The ugly face behind 'open' Myanmar's charm offensive

While surface changes in the country have seen investors rushing in, activists say there remains no rule of law and flagrant abuses of ethnic minorities and political prisoners by authorities is still commonplace

Moon Nay Li is adamant that despite all the talk of reforms there's still no rule of law to protect civilians in Myanmar. To prove her point she spreads a layer of detailed humanitarian reports, grisly photographs of dead children and single page testimonies that document the injuries, rapes, sexual abuse and tortures inflicted by the Myanmar army on civilians in Kachin State in recent months.

BY ANY OTHER NAME: Myanmar’s remaining political prisoners have been branded ‘criminals’ by the government.

Moon Nay Li is the coordinator of the Kachin Women's Association Thailand and explains that as a mother of a three year old she is shocked by what is happening in Kachin State.

"These families have been badly damaged, their futures destroyed. These people are farmers, they're civilians not soldiers, they don't deserve to have their lives shattered like this."

Moon Nay Li shuffles the papers, shakes her head and in a whispered voice says: "The army can rape women, kill children and the country's courts do nothing. It's crystal clear the military is all powerful, the courts are weak and the judges afraid of the military."

Moon Nay Li is referring to the abduction and disappearance of a Kachin woman, Sumlut Roi Ja, in October of last year. A court hearing was held in the country's capital, Nay Pyi Taw, in February, but after hearing the testimony of two Myanmar army officers the court dismissed the case.

Moon Nay Li outlines the details of the case. While working on their farm last October, three Myanmar army soldiers arrested Sumlut Roi Ja, her husband, Dau Lum and her father-in-law at gunpoint. Dau Lum and his father managed to escape, but Sumlut Roi Ja was taken to the Mu Bum army outpost.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) also documented the case in its report, Untold Miseries, published in March. The report noted that villagers witnessed over a number of days "what they believed to be Sumlut Roi Ja at a mountain top clearing controlled by soldiers".

The HRW report contains testimony from Kachin civilians that describe, "how Burmese [Myanmar] army soldiers have attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, pillaged properties and forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people".

Moon Nay Li says Sumlut Roi Ja's husband and baby daughter still pine for the missing woman.

"Sumlut Roi Ja is missing, there's no confirmation what has happened to her. It's hard to imagine the suffering her family goes through everyday and every night."

Moon Nay Li says the message that can be taken from the Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case against the army is clear.

"It means the military can rape and kill ethnic women with impunity. Since June, 2011, at least 60 women have been raped and sexually abused, 30 of those women were raped and then killed by Myanmar army soldiers."

STILL FIGHTING: Kachin Women’s Association Thailand coordinator Moon Nay Li.

Last month, the Myanmar army attacked the village of Luk Pi. Most villagers fled, but Moon Nay Li says one woman, Gwa Ma Le, 48, decided to take refuge in the local church.

"The soldiers found her when they took another villager, Yu Ta Gwi, to the church to interrogate and torture him. While being held captive he witnessed the repeated rape of Gwa Ma Le. She was raped, beaten, kicked and starved for three days. When the soldiers left, villagers took the semi-conscious woman and man to hospital.

"Gwa Ma Le has 12 children, the youngest is four. Her family say she is suffering massive mental trauma and is in critical need of ongoing medical help."

Moon Nay Li details the killing of two young children in early May.

"Three kids were bathing in the Ta Li River when there was a loud explosion. The children ran for safety, but soldiers from Infantry Battalion 76 fired artillery and small arms at them. Two of the three children were shot in the back _ they were only five and seven years old. What kind of army shoots kids?"

Moon Nay Li says the stories of human rights abuses, rapes, killings and displacement are not the narratives the international community and media want to hear about Myanmar at the moment.

"They'd rather look at the surface changes taking place _ 'an interesting place to travel and you can buy newspapers now' _ the international community is talking up the reforms and conveniently ignoring the abuses while pushing to take advantage of investment opportunities. Burma has two faces, one for the international community and one for the ethnic people."

Outside the small house in northern Thailand that serves as the Kachin Women's Association Thailand office, heavy rain clatters on roofs, signalling the arrival of the region's monsoon season. Moon Nay Li is worried the heavy rains will bring disease and hardship to the displaced people in Kachin State.

"It's a war zone, we have more than 70,000 displaced people living in basic shelters. A year ago they were productive farmers and now their living in temporary shelters with barely enough to keep them alive. They badly need support and help."

In March, in his report to the UN Human Rights Commissioner's Office, Tomas Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur for Myanmar, demanded that as a priority the abuses in Kachin State must stop and unrestricted international aid allowed in.

"Of particular concern is the ongoing conflict in Kachin State, where there are continuing reports of violations committed and where the needs of those displaced and affected by the conflict must be addressed as a matter of priority. I reiterate that the United Nations and its humanitarian partners should have regular, independent and predictable access to all in need of humanitarian assistance, independent of ongoing negotiations, without conditions attached, and regardless of whether they are in government-controlled areas."

Moon Nay Li acknowledges, even with Mr Quintana's support, it is hard to get international attention focused on the atrocities and the humanitarian crisis in Kachin State while the world is besotted with analysing Aung San Suu Kyi's every move and holding it up as proof that Myanmar's authoritarian government is finally embracing democracy.


One man with first-hand experience of the fickleness of the international community is former political prisoner, Bo Kyi.

Less than a year ago Bo Kyi, as secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, was the go-to man for international diplomats, NGOs and journalists seeking background information on the situation inside Myanmar.

"These days the international media and others are mainly interested in Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and in rewarding the government. The crimes against humanity in Kachin State, land confiscation, developing laws that protect citizens, stopping human rights abuses and releasing all political prisoners is what's needed now, but these issues are mostly ignored. If the significance of these issues is not grasped it makes future reconciliation and peace an impossible task."

Bo Kyi believes the government has used political prisoners as pawns in a charm offensive to lift international sanctions.

''It has worked. Releasing prominent political prisoners gave the government legitimacy in the eyes of foreigners. You can now see foreign politicians falling over themselves to meet and introduce their business communities to Myanmar's President U Thein Sein.''

ONGOING ABUSES: The KWAT claims this student was killed when a school dormitory in Nam Lin Pa village, Kachin State, was bombed by the Myanmar army in August, 2011.

Bo Kyi points out that the Myanmar government needs to do more to convince its citizens it is serious about protecting human rights and putting the rule of law in place.

''They need to show that human rights abuses will not be tolerated. They should take action against those committing the crimes, if not they are legitimising the abusers. I'm not talking about the past. I'm talking about what's happening today and tomorrow.''

Bo Kyi insists that government institutions are the worst offenders.

''The military, police and prison authorities are the main abusers of human rights. Judges need to take responsibility and be accountable instead of being used as tools by the government to silence its opposition. Illegal arrests are still be used to silence those who might be thinking about protesting.''

Bo Kyi is adamant the international community has given enough concessions to the government to show it is sincere about its support for Myanmar.

''The government has to give more, the pressure on them to do so has to be maintained but engagement must also be continued. If the government is allowed to weaken the opposition through a lack of rule of law, Burma's democracy will be the poorer.''

Bo Kyi says recently released political prisoners still face government discrimination.

''They are denied passports, not allowed to continue their university studies and those who were doctors and lawyers are being denied registration. These are basic human rights, this government has imposed sanctions on its own citizens.''

The government has always insisted that there are no political prisoners in Myanmar. When US Senator John McCain visited in June last year The New Light of Myanmar reported that the senator was bluntly told by both the vice-president and the foreign minister that the country had no political prisoners.

''Union Minister U Wunna Maung Lwin said that Myanmar has firmly announced that there are no political prisoners in the country. Those serving their prison terms in Myanmar's jails are just law breakers.''

Bo Kyi says the government's position that it only jails those who break the law ''translates as locking up their political opposition''.

Another former political prisoner, Ko Ko Gyi, has experienced first hand the differences between being jailed as a common criminal and being put behind bars because of politics.

''Criminal prisoners get around a third remission. Political prisoners have to serve their full sentence. We don't get fair treatment. We can't hire lawyers, we are tried in closed courts, and our families are not allowed to attend our trials or are even told we are been held in captivity.''

Ko Ko Gyi claims it is a deliberate government policy to house political prisoners in remote jails as a way to mentally torture them.

''My family were unable to visit me. I saw them three times in three-and-half years. We had no adequate medical care, no tests, no outside care. If you are seriously ill you have little chance of recovery.''

Ko Ko Gyi is no stranger to dissent or fighting for his rights. He was recently released by the government after serving four and half years of a draconian 65-year jail sentence he received in 2008. In 1991 he was jailed for 20 years and released in 2004. In 2007 he was again arrested for protesting on behalf of political prisoners. His crime? Wearing white clothing similar to that worn by political prisoners and visiting the families of jailed activists.

Ko Ko Gyi acknowledges that his country is undergoing change, and for the better. This interview would have been unthinkable a year ago and would have resulted in harsh reprisals from the authoritarian government.

''This government knows how to work the international community well. There are changes at the top, but not at some of the local authority level. For example, the local authorities in the Dawei area committing human rights abuses and engaging in land confiscation.''

Ko Ko Gyi explains that he recently visited the Dawei area and ran into trouble with the local officials who ordered local residents not to welcome him and the 88 Student Generation.

''I believe the orders were not issued by the high government, but by the local authorities _ people were not allowed to assemble, speak freely or even welcome us publically. Villagers asked us to talk at their villages. We encourage local people to exercise their rights within the law, but the villagers were threatened.''

Ko Ko Gyi says it is important that the remaining 471 political prisoners in jail and the 465 under verification are not sacrificed in the stampede by the international community's rush to do business in Myanmar.

''We strongly ask the international community not to forget the political prisoners still in jail. If our government wants to show the world there is real change they have to acknowledge there are political prisoners _ there should be no more political prisoners in Burma. In a real democracy political opposition should be able to express strong opinions.''

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners's (AAPP) report for April documents the case of three air force officers who were jailed for writing an article critical of the Myanmar army. The three officers were convicted under section 33(a) of the Electronic Act and sentenced to 20 years. Their whereabouts remain unknown and they have been denied any family contact.

The AAPP report contains a list of farmers arrested for refusing to accept their land being confiscated and their forced eviction. A farmer in Mandalay Division who argued against his land being confiscated was arrested on April 8, ''police confirmed that he had been arrested because he led some villagers to complain against land confiscations''.


In April, the Karen National Union signed a ceasefire agreement with the government of Myanmar. Since the signing villagers have reported that travelling in the state has been easier, but the Myanmar army continues to resupply its troops with weapons and ammunition.

The humanitarian group Free Burma Rangers, which delivers aid and medical care to displaced people, report that in April, ''Light Infantry Battalion 593 shot at villagers returning from hunting in Ta Naw Th'ree Township, Mergui/Tavoy District.''

The Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) reported that in April, the Myanmar army's Light Infantry Division 44 demanded villagers from the Bilin Township area supply for free ''building materials, including 5,000 bamboo poles and more than 20,000 thatch shingles''.

A KHRG staff member ''witnessed thousands of thatch shingles and bamboo poles stacked along the main road and more than 10 military trucks carrying thatch shingles and bamboo poles in both directions towards Yangon and Mawlamyine. Thatch shingles and bamboo poles are common commercial goods that provide basic building materials for many homes in Burma.''

Last week the Asean Inter-Parliamentary Myanmar Caucus (AIPMC) noted in a press release that Myanmar is experiencing ''rapid political and economic development and change''.

The AIPMC issued the media statement to draw attention to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights drafting of a declaration of human rights for the bloc.

Son Chhay, the vice-president of AIPMC, echoed Moon Nay Li's concerns when he said: ''Something does not sit right when Asean's leading human rights proponents are sitting in Yangon writing their human rights declaration, while a few hundred kilometres away in Kachin State, a vicious war is being fought, where people are being raped and killed, and allegations of forced military porters, targeting of civilians and other human rights abuses are rife.''

HRW's's senior researcher on Myanmar, David Mathieson, explains it is vital the process for implementing a genuine reconciliation process is not lost in the rush for ''change at any price''.

''Justice and accountability is what the people of Burma want, but any peace process must have justice as one of its core elements, otherwise there will be no longstanding peace. All parties to the conflict must respect international humanitarian law and realise abusive behaviour prolongs suffering and war.''

Moon Nay Li says the solution for the people of Kachin State is for the Myanmar army to withdraw.

''If they leave there is no fight. We need a third party to broker a ceasefire agreement. We want peace but the government is after the total control the ethnic areas. It will be a long struggle.''

SOME THINGS DON’T CHANGE: Kachin people are forced to live in overcrowded huts with no privacy in makeshift camps after being displaced by the Myanmar army.

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