Thousands of Karen villagers take to the streets of Hpapun district on July 28 to protest the killing of a woman by the army and demand the withdrawal of battalions from the area. (Photo: Karen Peace Support Network)
On July 28 morning, thousands of villagers took to the streets of Hpapun district in Karen state of southeastern Myanmar to demand justice for a woman killed by the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s army.
More than 4,000 people joined the protest to voice their grievances over the slain woman and to call for the withdrawal of Tatmadaw battalions from the area.
The protesters from several villages in Hpapun district waved Karen flags while some held vinyl posters of slain civilians.
It was the second peaceful rally in the region following the murder of Mu Naw, a 40-year-old ethnic Karen mother of three, by two soldiers on July 16. More than 1,500 villagers joined the first protest on July 22.
The Tatmadaw said they will take action against the two soldiers who shot the woman and stole jewelry from her home in Po Lo Hta village.
The incident has outraged rights groups, civil society and villagers who have called for accountability and justice.
The Karen Women’s Organization (KWO) said the act of resilience and defiance by these villagers shows the extent of their frustration with the Tatmadaw, who continue to evade accountability.
“Their demands must be met immediately and those responsible for committing war crimes should no longer be protected by military impunity,” the KWO said in a statement on July 28.
Refugees gather along Thai border
The latest civilian casualty has angered villagers and worsened tensions in the region where more than 60 years of conflict between the Tatmadaw and Karen rebels have left over 100,000 refugees in camps along the Thai border.
Karen state has been relatively peaceful besides minor clashes since three of the local militias joined five other armed groups in signing a National Ceasefire Agreement with the government and military in October 2015.
Signatories included the Karen National Union, the largest of the groups which has been fighting the military for the last six decades, the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army and the Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council.
However, tensions flared again in 2018 following the deployment of six battalions to oversee road construction that prompted clashes and caused hundreds of people to flee into the jungle.
Although the military said the development would help local communities, civil society groups said the road would pass through communities and be used to connect military bases.
Along with sporadic clashes in northern and southeastern Myanmar, the military, long accused of atrocities against ethnic minorities, has been engaged in an escalating conflict with the Arakan Army fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state since December 2018.
Scores of civilians have been killed and thousands of people, mostly ethnic Rakhine, remain in makeshift camps in Rakhine and neighboring Chin state.
Rakhine also has a separate conflict that has seen more than 700,000 Rohingya forced to flee into Bangladesh since military offensives in August 2017.
In August 2018, a UN fact-finding mission called for senior military officials to be prosecuted for genocide and war crimes against Rohingya Muslims and other ethnic minorities.
No peace without justice
Myanmar has faced mounting pressure from the international community over rights abuses against Rohingya in Rakhine as the International Court of Justice has filed genocide charges.
State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has pledged to bring peace to the conflict-torn nation, but ongoing fighting in ethnic areas has undermined her promises.
The military is viewed as being beyond the control of Suu Kyi’s government. A key reason is that the military remains a dominant force in Myanmar’s transition to democracy, with 25 percent of unelected military representatives being allocated by a 2008 constitution to the national and regional parliaments. It also controls the key portfolios of defense, border and home affairs.
The government is to hold the fourth Panglong peace conference from Aug. 12-14 after the peace process had been stalled since the third conference in January 2018.
Leaders of the Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu communities have appealed to all leaders of the country “to listen with respect to one another and determine to seek the good of all” in anticipation of the Nov. 8 national election and the Panglong peace conference.
“The people of Myanmar deserve peace, not unending war. There can be no peace without justice. There can be no justice without truth,” religious leaders said in a statement on July 13.