People displaced by fighting in northern Myanmar have been living for more than three years in temporary camps in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina (Photo by Simon Lewis)
When fighting broke out in northern Myanmar in June 2011 between ethnic Kachin rebels and the government army, U Law Lu Lum heard that government soldiers were on their way.
The 50-year-old lay catechist led fellow villagers into the scrub around Malisu Yang village, hiding out while troops looted stores and burned farmland on their way to the front line.
Sticking around was not an option.
“They suspect that every Kachin is an enemy, no matter how old, or if it’s a man or a woman,” he told ucanews.com at a camp made up of cramped bamboo huts in the Kachin state capital, Myitkyina, where most of the village’s former residents have lived ever since.
They are among about 99,000 people displaced by fighting in Kachin state and northern Shan state since hostilities resumed between the military — known as the Tatmadaw — and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).
Not everyone got away, however.
“When the military found civilians, they took some of them as porters. But there was also a 70-year-old man in the village who was too old to flee. The military found him and suspected him of helping the KIA. So they killed him,” he said.
“They didn’t kill him at once, but we heard he was tortured to death.”
In the camps for the displaced, most people have similar stories that have filtered out from what are termed “black areas” in a color-coding system employed by the army in conflict zones. White areas are under central government control; brown areas are contested.
The dreaded black areas are where ethnic rebels lie in wait, ready to ambush government troops on the roads and in village tracts. But when government troops come across civilians in black areas, they act with impunity, leading to reports of looting, forced labor, rape and summary executions.
“If more of us had stayed, we would have been killed too,” said U Law Lu Lum. “This is a war — even if we make a complaint, the military won’t take any action.”
'Women, children and the elderly'
U Gun Zaw, 43, comes from a rugged area close to Myanmar’s border with China. When troops came through his village — close to the KIA’s mountain headquarters at Laiza — he managed to flee on foot before hitching a ride to Myitkyina, where he has relatives.
A friend was not so lucky, he said.
“He fled to Laiza instead of here, but he tried to go back to the village,” U Gun Zaw said. “When he went back, military reinforcements were coming through. They suspect every civilian, so they shot him dead.”
Testimony from the displaced suggests that the Tatmadaw’s tactics for fighting the country’s decades-long ethnic insurgencies have changed little since the country emerged from outright military rule in 2011.
“I spoke with several former soldiers who described the orders they were given in black areas,” Harvard School of Law researcher Matthew Bugher told reporters in Yangon in November, “and they said that they were told everyone that was in that area was to be considered the enemy.”
“Everyone includes women, children and the elderly.”
Bugher was presenting the findings of a 77-page legal memorandum by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard, which lays out in detail a Myanmar army offensive in Karen state in 2005-08.
The researchers claim to have collected evidence that implicates three commanders — including the current home affairs minister — in war crimes and crimes against humanity for targeting civilians.
Since that offensive, a civilian government has taken the reins in the country. The 2008 constitution in theory gives some degree of oversight on security issues to senior civilian politicians — though most of them happen to be former generals.
Fighting between the government and the KIA — as well as ethnic Palaung, Shan and Kokang rebels — has raged almost since the self-styled reformist administration took power. Talks on a nationwide ceasefire agreement are continuing in Yangon this week, but had seemingly stalled even before a government mortar attack on Laiza in November killed 23 young cadets from a number of ethnic armies who were undergoing training.
The displaced look unlikely to return home soon, as even areas that have not seen fighting for more than a year remain highly militarized.
Researchers say the military's offensive has indiscriminately targeted civilians, including women, children and the elderly (Photo by Simon Lewis)
Shoot on sight
"That whole area is a black area,” says Father Vincent Shan Lum, waving his hand over most of northeastern Kachin state on a map. The area represents the foothills of the Himalayas, and is accessible to the rest of the country only by a single road, or by river.
Father Vincent is the former parish priest of Sumpra Bum town, along the route north from Myitkyina. In 2011 and 2012, he said, the military emptied all the villages on either side of the road in order to cement its control.
The soldiers were highly suspicious of anyone traveling through — even a priest in his cassock.
“The soldiers are very humble up to Myitsone [the confluence of the rivers that become the Ayeyarwady]; they don’t do anything. But after passing there, they act like beasts,” he said, recalling two occasions when he was quizzed at gunpoint.
Southeast Asia-based Fortify Rights has documented numerous abuses by government troops in the conflict. Most attacks have occurred in areas with no KIA presence, suggesting they are designed to cut off the group from civilian support and secure control of trade routes and Kachin state’s copious natural resources.
“We've documented what appears to be a shoot-on-sight practice by the Tatmadaw in certain areas of Kachin state,” Fortify Rights executive director Matthew Smith said by email.
“Unarmed civilians learned the hard way that if they were in certain contested areas, the army would open fire on them. In the last year we've interviewed survivors and witnesses of such attacks. I've personally interviewed numerous people who survived such attacks.”
"At its core the army is an unreformed institution. Sadly many of its core competencies still appear to be in violation of the laws of war.”
Similar tactics have been a key part of Myanmar’s counter-insurgency campaign for decades.
“Its very clear that this black area policy is sort of the grandchild or the child of the ‘Four Cuts’ doctrine and that it embraces the same ethos, which is: the sanctioning of civilian targeting as a way to combat insurgency,” said Harvard researcher Bugher.
“Four Cuts” was developed by the Myanmar army in the late 1960s as it battled the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma as well as the ethnic armed groups. It entails cutting rebel groups’ access to the four needs of food, funds, new recruits and information, largely by removing the civilian population in their areas of activity.
The historic policy, also known to some as “no man’s land,” was characterized by the army sweeping through the area — with the results the same as those seen more recently in the north.
A policy memorandum published by the clinic earlier this year said the designation of black areas contravened international law as it predictably lead to attacks on civilians.
“This practice constitutes a per se violation of the principle of distinction, a fundamental tenet of international humanitarian law which requires that combatants distinguish between civilian and military targets,” the memorandum said.
“Myanmar’s military justice system, which lacks civilian oversight, has consistently failed to hold military personnel responsible for abuses of civilians, leading to an atmosphere of impunity throughout the military’s ranks. Moreover, military leadership has rewarded improper conduct by routinely promoting senior commanders who have overseen large military offensives in which civilians were targeted en masse.”
The military — which does not have a functioning spokesperson — and the government have both so far rejected all calls for accountability, with the deputy defense minister reportedly dismissing the Harvard memorandum as “one-sided and inaccurate”.
Rights groups say that Myanmar’s ethnic armed groups have also committed abuses in the conflicts, but on a far smaller scale.
Dr Tu Ja, a former Kachin Independence Organization cadre turned civilian politician, told ucanews.com that accountability for the actions of military commanders in northern Myanmar would be “an issue for the future”.
“Myanmar people excuse others’ mistakes easily. The people will not be eager to punish them,” said Dr Tu Ja, who now heads the Kachin State Democracy Party.
However, he said, “If [their acts] are inexcusable, they should be punished,” suggesting that researchers may one day begin digging into recent offensives.
“In the future, we can’t guarantee that there won’t be a local or an international research team,” he said. “Therefore, some of the military leaders should be worried.”