Nearly one year after Burmese soldiers allegedly abducted Sumlut Roi Ja from her hillside farm in eastern Kachin State, her family is still waiting for answers—and does not even know if she is alive, said her grieving husband Dau Lum, who said he witnessed the alleged crime.
He said that the events that occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2011, will forever be etched in his mind, describing the day as the worst of his life. According to Dau Lum, it was a typical afternoon; his wife and his father were harvesting corn at their farm near Hkaibang village. Typical, until a group of six or seven Burmese soldiers suddenly surrounded them without any warning.
With guns aimed at their heads the soldiers accused Dau Lum and his father of being members of the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). The soldiers ignored Dau Lum’s protests and proceeded to tie up Dau Lum and his father with ropes. The soldiers ordered the men and Roi Ja, who was left untied, to carry the corn back to their base at Mubum, located a short walk away on the next hilltop.
While en route to the base Dau Lum and his father managed to untie themselves and run. When the soldiers realized they had escaped they opened fire but both managed to evade the bullets by jumping into a ravine, Dau Lum said.
Roi Ja was however unable to break free from from the soldiers guarding her. For several days after her abduction KIO soldiers stationed near Mu Bum could see Roi Ja inside the fortified hilltop outpost using their binoculars. KIO troops monitoring the base have said they saw Roi Ja on at least one occasion dressed in a Burmese military uniform and paraded around by her captors. After about a week Roi Ja could no longer be seen inside the base, located on the Kachin side of the Sino-Burmese border and surrounded by the KIO on three sides.
On Nov. 4, Dau Lum’s father Maru Ze Dau wrote a detailed letter to the Kachin State chief minister recounting Roi Ja’s abduction and requesting that his daughter in-law be freed immediately. In the letter the 70-year-old farmer recounted how he was threatened at gunpoint and accused of being a rebel despite the fact he himself had served in the Tatmadaw [Burmese army] from 1969 to 1975.
After failing to get a response from their letter, lawyers acting on behalf of Roi Ja’s family launched a case with the Naypyidaw Supreme Court in January. Dau Lum, his father and a few close friends traveled to Naypyidaw for what they hoped would be a precedent-setting case. During the court proceedings, Dau Lum was barred from testifying. On March 23, the Supreme Court threw out their challenge citing a lack of evidence, ending all legal options for Dau Lum and his family.
Human rights activists familiar with the case describe the court’s ruling as extremely flawed and ridiculously biased against Dau Lum. The court’s ruling claims that government authorities were never informed about the incident in the weeks after it took place, something contradicted by the letter Roi Ja ‘s father-in-law wrote to the Kachin State chief minister and similar letters he sent to the Bhamo District governor and the commander of Battalion 321 who is responsible for Mubum.
“If they are honest about the incident, they would have said what happened to my wife. But the court process gave us no factual information,” said Dau Lum who believes that the military’s failure to even acknowledge that his wife was taken by government forces indicates she’s no longer alive.
Shortly after Roi Ja was abducted, heavy fighting broke out in the vicinity of Mubum base as government forces launched a full-scale offensive to cut through Kachin lines to gain control of a key road linking the group’s de facto capital Laiza to their second largest town, Mai Ja Yang. Although the fighting in the area subsided in January, what was once Dau Lum’s family farm remains part of a no-man’s-land cut off by a series of minefields planted by both parties in the ongoing conflict.
Last month Dau Lum invited The Irrawaddy to accompany him to the scene of his wife’s abduction, a journey only possible with the protection of armed guards from the KIO. Almost all of the inhabitants of the village, including Dau Lum, have since fled to nearby refugee camps or crossed into China.
On the way up to the his farm we passed Roi Ja’s parents’ house where she and Dau Lum were married in 2008. Located next to a babbling brook the thatched-roof home where Roi Ja spent most of her life is a postcard example of traditional Kachin construction.
The latter section of the mountain trail that Dau Lum and his wife would use every day to get to their farm is now home to a recently created KIO post. When we arrive the post’s chief, a captain and 30-year veteran, asks if we really want to proceed toward the farm because the rest of the trail is littered with landmines and an assortment of homemade booby traps. The captain said we should be okay, but admitted that his men aren’t 100 percent sure where the mines are planted.
“Don’t step on that twig, its a mine,” warned one of the KIO soldiers, suggesting instead the this correspondent jump over it, a necessity because sidestepping the improvised mine is out of the question as similar lethal devices are frequently planted on either side. After an uneventful but unnerving half-hour journey along the rest of the trail, a distance that Dau Lum used to cover in just a few minutes, we reach a cliff that faces the mountain side that was once Dau Lum’s farm.
“This is the place where my wife was kidnapped,” Dau Lum said, pointing to a lump of banana trees in his field. This is the closest Dau Lum has been to his farm since that fateful day when Roi Ja was taken.
“Looking at the place from here, I feel a lot of things,” he said. “There are no words to explain my feelings when I see this place.”
Asked to compare the ongoing conflict in Kachin State with the reforms implemented by President Thein Sein, Dau Lum’s responds that his wife’s abduction shows that Burma’s ethnic people aren’t free from dictatorship. “Whatever Thein Sein says, it is not happening on the ground. Whatever they are telling the world, nothing has changed in our homeland,” he said.
When I asked Dau Lum what he will tell his two-year-old daughter when she grows up about the fate of her mother, tears began to well up in his eyes. “If I tell my daughter what really happened, that the Burma army soldiers killed her, she will grow up and want to take revenge for her mother,” he said. “I will just tell my daughter that she died.” This may prove difficult however given that Roi Ja’s abduction is well known throughout the Kachin community.
This week the Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand sent an open letter to President Thein Sein demanding justice for Roi Ja, but it remains unclear if Thein Sein will break with his predecessor Than Shwe’s practice of ignoring letters from human rights groups that accuse the military of rape, murder, summary executions and other crimes.
Dau Lum and his daughter are now living in a small shelter which they also share with his parents and his cousins. It is located in a refugee camp about a one-hour motorbike journey from the scene of his wife’s abduction. “ I don’t know whether she has died or not. But, I try to tell myself that she died to feel better,” Dau Lum said.
The thought that his wife may still be hostage to a group of lonely Burmese soldiers in an isolated outpost is a fate that Dau Lum would prefer not to think about.