Almost one-third of families in Karen State surveyed for a new report experienced human rights violations despite government promises that Burma is moving towards reform.
Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released Bitter Wounds and Lost Dreams: Human Rights Under Assault in Karen State, Burma on Tuesday which details accounts of evictions, labor, physical abuse, torture and rape committed by government troops last year.
The PHR survey also indicated that people who lived near a mine, pipeline, hydroelectric dam or other economic development project promoted by the Burmese government were significantly more likely to have experienced a human rights violation.
“Despite many positive changes underway in Rangoon, the international community must not forget about ethnic minority groups in Burma’s rural and border areas,” said PHR Burma Project Director Bill Davis.
“This survey demonstrates that even with political reforms and discussions of a ceasefire, human rights violations by the Burmese army remain a constant threat for too many families in Karen State.”
PHR says the report provides a snapshot of ongoing abuses against Karen people and communities in the country’s mountainous eastern region bordering Thailand, where the army has been battling insurgent groups for decades.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, praised PHR for finally showing strong survey data of the continued abuses.
“It shows that the Burma Army has not changed the way it operates in ethnic minority areas,” he told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday. “It is essentially a predatory ‘live-off-the-land’ army that is committing major human rights abuses whether it is fighting the KNU [Karen National Union] or there is a ceasefire in effect.
“And the projects which are being brought into these areas under the protection of the army are also contributing to these abuses.”
Such reports have come to no surprise to activists with various sources citing similar more recent incidents despite the signing of a ceasefire between the government and ethnic rebel KNU on Jan. 12.
The Free Burma Rangers reported that government soldiers from Light Infantry Division 66 fired at civilians at a road crossing at Wa Baw Day, Toungoo District, Karen State, on June 23.
“Of the four villagers, two villagers were from Hee Daw Kaw Village and two were from Thay Ko Der Village,” said the report. “They were carrying rice from Kler La when they were shot at by the Burma Army, but lost all of their rice while escaping.”
Civilians living near government projects were almost eight times more likely to have been forced to work for the army and over six times more likely to be have been uprooted or had restrictions placed on their travel, according to the PHR survey.
“Displaced villagers not familiar with or not aware of the changing security situation, particularly regarding new development projects which may be protected by heightened security measures, are exposed to increased physical security risks,” said a separate corroborating report by the Karen Human Rights Group.
“Prior to the ceasefire … the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces] operated a shoot-on-sight policy in certain areas of Karen State that have been deemed off-limits by government troops. Villagers were detained or shot if inside or attempting to access land that was previously used for livelihoods activities but which had been declared off limits by local security forces.
“As of the first week of March, the Tatmadaw had not yet been abandoned this policy and Tatmadaw troops on patrol in Papun District fired on four villagers, two of whom were serving as home guards at the time, killing one and injuring two of them.”
PHR’s research team trained 22 surveyors from five local partner organizations to survey 665 households in 88 villages in Karen State in January 2012. The survey, conducted in two local languages, consisted of 93 questions covering human rights abuses, health indicators, food availability, and access to health care between January 2011 and January 2012.
“The correlation between development projects and human rights violations should send a sobering message to those in the US government that an influx of investment without strict accountability for abusers will worsen the human rights situation in Burma,” said PHR Washington Director and Chief Policy Officer Hans Hogrefe.