By MARWAAN MACAN-MARKAR / IPS WRITER
The Irrawaddy News
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
BANGKOK — 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 Southeast 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 Southeast 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, Southeast Asia researcher for Amnesty International (AI), the global rights lobby. "The violations are widespread and systematic."
"This campaign started in November 2005 and has escalated. They did not even stop during the annual monsoon period (from May to October), which was not the case before," he explained during an IPS interview. "There has been a shift in strategy and intensity. It is no more a dry season offensive."
The military campaign is the largest and the longest sustained drive in a decade. "The Burmese army is rotating soldiers every six months and they have penetrated areas deep in the Karen area," David Tharckabaw, vice president of the KNU, said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. "Nothing is being spared. They are even destroying fruit plantations like mangosteen."
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.
"Before the soldiers left the village, they planted landmines, one of them in front of the church. An old man, maybe 70 years-old, stepped on a landmine and was killed," a female rice farmer told an AI researcher of an incident in early 2006, when the ‘Tatmadaw’ burned 20 of the 30 houses in her village.
"I lost everything—kitchen, furniture, rice stocks—not a single piece of paper was left," she added. "The same happened to the other 19 families whose houses were burned."
The unrelenting campaign, which has included the Burmese infantry and heavy use of 120 mm and 81mm mortar shells, has shrunk an already limited space for Karen civilians and internally displaced people (IDPs) to escape to. "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 from Burma along the Thai-Burmese border.
"Nearly 66,000 people from 38 townships have been forced to flee their homes due to the armed conflict and human rights abuses," he told IPS. "They had to because the violations are being committed in a climate of impunity."
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. "There is no avenue for redress if they were to stay back."
That is reflected in Burma’s over half a million IDPs, nearly 451,000 of which live in the rural ethnic areas, according to TBBC. It places Burma in the same league as countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which have internally displaced running into the hundreds of thousands.
But what sets Burma apart is the lack of any international agencies to help the victims and serve as neutral observers in the conflict zone.
Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was helping to provide artificial limbs for landmine victims, was hampered by new restrictions to its operations in 2006. In mid-2007, the Geneva-based humanitarian agency broke its famed silence in an unprecedented attack on the junta to explain why it had to end its operations in Burma, including the Karen areas.
The ICRC’s denunciation of major and repeated violations in the conflict zones in eastern Burma confirmed what many analysts had said of a region that is cut away from international scrutiny and media exposure. "The repeated abuses committed against men, women and children living along the Thai-Myanmar border violate many provisions of international humanitarian law," the organization said.
The Karens, who account for nearly seven million of Burma’s 57 million people, have their own distinctive culture and language and have Buddhists, Christians and animists among them. The Burmans, who are the majority, are predominantly Buddhist by faith, speak Burmese, and have a culture and history shaped by kings before being subjugated by British colonization.
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, subsequently, 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 all the 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. "The regime is a fascist regime. Their ideology is extremism, racism and militarism."