RANGOON — A media whirlwind surrounding the case of a journalist detained and killed by the Burma Army served as a stark reminder of another unsolved mystery: the disappearance of an ethnic Kachin woman named Sumlut Roi Ja at the hands of Burmese soldiers a full three years ago.
On Oct. 28, more than 120 civil society organizations from Burma and abroad jointly demanded that the government fully and openly investigate the case of her alleged abduction, rape and murder, and hold all perpetrators accountable. Tuesday marked the third anniversary of Roi Ja’s disappearance.
Dau Lum, Roi Ja’s husband, has had to retell this story many times since her disappearance. He has often recounted for the media that his wife was 28 years old when he, she and his father were abducted by soldiers while gathering corn on their family’s farmland in the Kachin hills near Hkaibang village, Momauk Township.
The soldiers, who were members of the Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 321, allegedly claimed that the captives were associated with the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which is an officially unlawful political body governing rebel territories of northern Burma.
The two men managed to escape through gunfire, but his wife remained in custody and was taken to a nearby Burmese military base, where villagers could see her with binoculars. She has not been seen since about a week after her abduction, and her family has spent the past three years going from courthouse to courthouse, demanding that government produce her body and account for her disappearance.
Her story is well-known among Kachin people and she is widely believed to have been raped and killed. At the time of her abduction, she left behind a one-year-old daughter.
Both the military and civil authorities have ignored her family’s relentless requests for an investigation. Dau Lum even attempted to acquire a writ of habeas corpus from Burma’s Supreme Court, but his claim was rejected in March 2012. The court cited insufficient evidence.
What happened to Roi Ja is, sadly, not uncommon in many of Burma’s ethnic regions, according to Maran Jaw Gun, coordinator of a civil society coalition called the Kachin Peace Network. He pointed out that the recent case of Aung Kyaw Naing, commonly known as Par Gyi, is symbolic of the military’s behavior in other parts of the country.
“When the journalist Par Gyi disappeared, the military announced that he was dead because the case is well known. I want to point out that there are many cases like this in ethnic areas,” Maran Jaw Gun told The Irrawaddy.
Aung Kyaw Naing was working as a reporter in southeastern Burma’s Mon State when he was arrested by the army on Sept. 30 for his alleged involvement with an ethnic Karen armed group. Three weeks later, the military informed Burma’s Interim Press Council that he had been killed on Oct. 4 as he attempted to escape. The military’s statement said that he had been buried shortly after his death.
The case caused domestic and international outrage; crowds took to the streets of Burma’s cities, while embassies of the United States and the United Kingdom urged the government to seek justice. The president’s office announced on Friday that it had ordered the National Human Rights Commission to investigate.
The furore triggered by the reporter’s death has given new energy to Roi Ja’s supporters. Maran Jaw Gun said that he and other civil society representatives will continue to raise her case with international bodies, including the United Nations.
Mar Khar, the lawyer representing Roi Ja’s family, told The Irrawaddy that he is happy to see so much support.
“I really appreciate that civil society is calling for justice in the case of Roi Ja. This is positive not only for her family, but for all who have been the victims of human rights abuse in war zones,” he said, adding that, “it might make the military hesitate before they do something like this again.”
Allegations of forced abduction and rape are common in Burma’s conflict zones. Women’s rights groups have documented more than 70 cases of sexual cases committed by Burma Army soldiers against women and young girls in northern Burma since June 2011. At least 20 of those cases are said to have resulted in the victim’s death.
Three years after Roi Ja’s disappearance, Mar Khar said that Roi Ja’s family doubts that they will ever see her alive again, and they now hope only for justice. The Irrawaddy spoke with Dau Lum two years ago at his home in a remote village, and even then he had little hope of reuniting with his wife. While the story is well-known throughout Kachin State, he said that he will keep it from daughter for as long as he can.
“If I tell my daughter what really happened, that the Burma Army killed her mother, she will grow up and want to take revenge,” he said. “I will tell my daughter that she died, that’s all.”