Burma: Crimes against humanity

An onslaught by Burmese troops in the eastern part of the military-ruled country, running for three years now, is laying the junta open to charge of ‘crimes against humanity’. This new charge adds to a growing list of human rights violations that the South-east Asian nation’s ruling military regime is being slammed for, including the use of rape as a weapon of war in military campaigns in areas that are home to the country’s ethnic minorities. The country has been under the grip of successive juntas since a 1962 military coup.

Eyewitness accounts from civilians fleeing the territory under attack reveal a grim picture of the ‘tatmadaw’, as the Burmese military is called, targeting unarmed men, women and children in a “widespread and systematic way,” say human rights and humanitarian groups. An increasing number of refugees have been crossing over to northern Thailand from among the Karen ethnic community, the second largest ethnic group in Burma, or Myanmar. Many of them live in the mountainous Karen State, the territory where South-east Asia’s longest —and largely ignored — separatist conflict is being waged between

Burmese troops and the armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU).

“Myanmar’s troops are overtly targeting civilians; they are actively avoiding KNU military installations. That is why we are describing the attacks as ‘crimes against humanity’,” says Benjamin Zawacki, South-east Asia researcher for Amnesty International (AI), the global rights lobby. “The violations are widespread and systematic.” The list of abuse document by AI, and corroborated by other humanitarian groups, include villagers being beaten and stabbed to death, being shot by the ‘tatmadaw’ “without any warning” and being tortured and subsequently killed. Karen civilians have also reportedly been subjected to forced labour, disappearances and their rice harvest being burned down.

“The more the Burmese military occupies areas in a worsening situation, the less space there is for civilians to escape to,” says Duncan McArthur, emergency relief coordinator of the Thailand Burma Border Consortium (TBBC), an alliance of 11 humanitarian groups helping refugees. “Nearly 66,000 people from 38 townships have been forced to flee their homes due to the armed conflict and human rights abuses,” he said. Some of the victims have poured into north-west Thailand, where there are already nine camps that house 120,000 refugees who fled intense phases of the conflict going back over a decade. “There are about 20,000 unregistered new arrivals and the natural growth in the camps,” added McArthur.

The Karen fight for independence began in 1949, a year after Burma got independence. And the KNU has refused to sign peace deals with the Burmese regime unlike some of the other separatist rebels from ethnic groups. The latter settled for ceasefire deals over the past two decades, only to learn that the junta’s promises of more political autonomy were hollow. “The Burmese military’s latest strategy is to keep attacking the KNU and Karen civilians in order to drive them to the Thai-Burma border,” says Tharekabaw, of the KNU. “Their goal is to control land and all the people, which has never been the case before.” “If they cannot control, they have to kill the people or to wipe them out,” he added. — IPS