RANGOON — Since the government and Karen rebels signed a ceasefire in 2012 rights abuses associated with conflict, such as forced labor, land mine contamination and army attacks on civilians, have decreased among Karen communities in southeastern Burma, while the freedom to travel has improved, a new report said.
Such positive trends have, however, been offset by a worsening of drug problems, land grabbing and environmental destruction affecting local communities, the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG) study said Tuesday. The organization also warned that the number of Burma Army bases in the region has been increasing since 2012, to the concern of ethnic Karen communities.
“Human rights conditions are improving on one hand, but on the other hand, new patterns of continuous human rights abuses are occurring, like land grabbing and drug trafficking,” Khu Khu Ju, advocacy coordinator of KHRG, said during the launch of the report called “Truce of Transition?” in Rangoon.
The report comprised 388 cases documenting 16 types of human rights violations collected by trained villagers working for KHRG in pre-dominantly Karen areas in Karen and Mon states, and in Pegu and Tenasserim divisions between January 2012 and November 2013.
The report highlighted ongoing abuses, such as taxation, rape, arbitrarily arrest and detention, torture and extrajudicial killings, faced by Karen civilians at the hands of the Burma Army, pro-government Border Guard Forces (BGF), the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA).
In one case highlighted in the report a Border Guard Force unit killed a family in Paingkyon Township in central Karen State on accusations of practicing witchcraft. A June 2013 testimony reads, “The BGF #1015 Commander Kya Aye asked his men to shoot and kill them all. He said that [the father] had abilities for practicing black magic, and that he would be able to kill other people with it, so he killed him, his wife and his two daughters.”
Despite such horrific cases of extrajudicial killings, the report is positive about the drop in attacks on civilians, lessening of pressure to carry out forced labor, and increased freedom for civilians to move around.
“The conditions of forced labor are getting better after the ceasefire agreement, but [the practice] still continues. According to what villages told us, they couldn’t do anything [about it] before, but now they can negotiate” about forced labor, Saw Albert, field director of KHRG said.
The planting of landmines has decreased, although some cases of newly laid mines by the KNLA and BGF were reported, the group found.
“The planting of new mining has reduced after the ceasefire, use mines as for defending bases is still continuing. [But] the existing mines planted before the ceasefire still remain [a danger] and villages keep facing mine problems,” said Saw Albert. “Three persons lost their legs while travelling during our report’s documentation period.”
The report noted that with improved security and freedom to travel, there has been an increase in drug use and trafficking in southeastern Burma, mostly in Hpa-an District, while investment projects—such as rubber plantations and mining—by well-connected businessmen have increased land grabbing and environmental destruction in the region.
“The ongoing process of political negotiation presents opportunities to establish land use systems that would support locally-determined interests and be consistent with international human rights norms,” the report said. “At the same time, the current vacuum allows private entities, acting in concert with state officials or non-state actors, to pursue their operations without regard for the consequences on local communities.”
Another trend researchers highlighted included the Burma Army strengthening and expanding the number of bases in Karen areas in southeastern Burma. “Between January 2012 and November 2013, villagers have reported the strengthening of existing army facilities or the building of new facilities throughout all of the Karen districts except [Myeik-Dawei],” the report said.
“All armies should begin to demilitarize former conflict areas… This means reducing troops, army bases, checkpoints and weapons inventories to signify the transition to peace,” the report recommends. “The Tatmadaw and [ethnic armed groups] should finalize a joint Code of Conduct as quickly as possible, which clearly defines limited operation areas for their forces and appropriate behavior of soldiers towards civilians.”