ABSDF Report Finds Torture, Leaves Questions in Killing of Its Own

By Nyein Nyein 16 March 2015

RANGOON — A committee formed by the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) to investigate the killing of 35 of its own members in the early 1990s released a report on Sunday documenting the extrajudicial killings and torture in detail, offering the first official account of a dark chapter in the rebel armed group’s 26-year existence.

The report from Truth and Justice Committee of the ABSDF, titled “Dignity,” looks at the circumstances surrounding the detention of 106 members of the ABSDB-Northern camp from August 1991 to May 1992 on grounds that they were government spies. Extensive torture and extrajudicial killings followed as leaders of the northern wing of the ABSDF—a student army that formed following the government’s crackdown on nationwide pro-democracy protests in 1988—attempted to extract confessions from the detainees.

Thirty-five people were killed in total, with some dying from torture and others summarily executed, including the single-day killing of 15 people on Feb. 12, 1992.

In addition to providing a grim account of the human rights abuses, the report offered suggestions on how to move past the incident.

Despite the formation of the ABSDF truth committee in January 2012, the actual inquiry began a year later, with its findings presented on Sunday. The report largely absolves the ABSDF-Central of any role in the killings, saying the Karen State-based headquarters “had little to no effective control over the ABSDF-Northern camp at the time of the incidents due to geographic distance, communication challenges,” and a loosely defined command structure.

The committee interviewed 62 people, 10 of whom were family members of the victims. Eight interviewees were the alleged perpetrators and the rest were survivors and witnesses to the incident.

Myint Oo, the head of the committee, said his organization had been committed to an inquiry about the incidents since 2008, but “due to the political landscape, it has been delayed.”

Reaction to the report from survivors and the victims’ family members was mixed, with many faulting its authors for failing to explicitly exculpate those accused of serving as government agents.

Htein Lin, a survivor, told The Irrawaddy that the report was “remarkable,” but could have done more to address the wishes of victims and their families.

“We—and on behalf of our colleagues’ family members—expect they could say more specifically [exonerating] those murdered.”

Htein Lin was one of the 106 people arrested and tortured during detention, but he and others managed to escape their captivity.

“The rest [any legal action] is beyond the committee’s mandate,” he said.

A recommendation that victims be reinstated to the ABSDF, and another advising that those who had perpetrated the human rights violations be removed from any current ABSDF Central Leadership position, marked “good steps” forward, Htein Lin said.

Of those accused of responsibility for the killings, La Seng remains on the current ABSDF-Northern’s working committee chair, and served as secretary-2 of the ABSDF-Northern camp at the time of the incidents.

Family members at the report’s launch also raised questions about several issues that the committee did not address, such as the role of the ethnic ally Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the killings, and whether the government did in fact manage to infiltrate the ABSDF.

Thin Thin Win, sister of the late student Ko Cho Gyi, who was one of the 15 people killed on Feb. 12, 1992, said victims and their families had long hoped for the truth about their loved ones to be revealed.

“The ABSDF should investigate more and say, by name, whether or not they were spies,” said Thin Thin Win, who lost her brother and a cousin, Htun Aung Kyaw, who was a student leader in the ABSDF-Northern camp.

“I don’t think the perpetrators will make an apology [as the report recommends] as they have ignored it for more than two decades,” she said.

Kyaw Lin, the coordinator of the Truth and Justice Committee, said the report focused on human rights violations, and that any legal action against the perpetrators would need to go through the national judiciary.

“It is uncomfortable to document our own group’s violations in the past and honestly face the reality, because it is in contrast to pointing out others’ fault,” he said in remarks at the report’s launch.

The committee did not have a chance to interview some of those considered responsible for the 1991-92 incidents, according to Kyaw Lin, because one had already died and another remains incarcerated at Tharyawaddy Prison in Pegu Division. Members of the most influential spy unit of the ABSDF-Northern camp could not be reached, he added.

“It really takes courage for an organization to admit recommendations that are uncomfortable, but by being willing to go through with the process like this, the ABSDF is showing commendable moral leadership,” said Swiss Ambassador to Burma Christoph Burgener, whose government helped fund the inquiry.

The ABSDF, once outlawed, signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government in August 2013.