MYITKYINA, Kachin State — Being forced to flee their burned out homes after fighting flared in Kachin State in June 2011 put incredible strain on the families of Lashi Lu and her fellow villager Hkawn Nan, who along with many of their neighbors took shelter in a Myitkyina camp for internally displaces persons (IDPs). But things got far worse for both women a year later, when soldiers from Infantry Battalion 37 arrested their husbands while they were working as cattle hands.
Following the June 2012 arrest of Lashi Lu’s husband Lahpai Gam and Hkawn Nan’s husband Brang Yung, both men were held and interrogated for two weeks by Burma’s Military Affairs Security (Sayapa in Burmese), a division infamous in Kachin State for its harsh treatment of detainees. According to their lawyer Mar Hkar, after days of brutal torture both men falsely confessed to being Kachin Independence Army (KIA) operatives involved in laying land mines and other explosives used in the KIA’s guerrilla campaign against the Burma Army.
During the interrogations, Mar Hkar says their captors forced his clients to sodomize each other, a claim supported by the detainees’ wives, who have been allowed some brief prison visits to see their husbands. Military Affairs Security personnel are also alleged to have ordered the men to re-enact a Kachin traditional Manau dance while shackled. Brang Yung, who like most of his fellow ethnic Kachin is a Christian, was also allegedly forced to stand naked in a Christ-like crucifixion pose for hours on end while his interrogators made insulting comments about his faith.
Both women maintain that their husbands have had nothing to do with the KIA or any plot to detonate explosives. “Our husbands are innocent, they are not KIA,” says Hkawn Nan, as Lashi Lu nods in agreement during a recent interview with The Irrawaddy at their IDP camp on the grounds of Myitkyina’s Shwe Zet Kachin Baptist Church.
Lashi Lu, a soft-spoken mother of four, says that during one of her five-minute prisons visits, her husband explained why both men had made their initial confessions. “He said: ‘If we didn’t confess, we’d be dead now,’” says Lashi Lu. “He confessed because they nearly killed him.”
The women tell The Irrawaddy they want to be reunited with their husbands as soon as possible. Although they are receiving basic food assistance at the displacement camp, losing their families’ breadwinners has made it extremely difficult for them to make ends meet and support their young children.
“We have no money to pay for school fees,” laments Hkawn Nan, herself a mother of three and the younger of the pair. While her friend Lashi Lu speaks softly, Hkawn Nan’s voice shakes with emotion as she recounts the difficulties she has endured since her husband was taken from her.
Compounding their difficulties, neither woman has been able to get steady work since arriving at the IDP camp, located on the outskirts of the Kachin State capital. Theirs is a common predicament, affecting many of the families in IDP camps across the state. The camps are currently receiving less than 20 percent of the funding that aid groups and UN agencies estimate is needed to deal with the ongoing humanitarian crisis triggered by the Kachin conflict, which has displaced more than 100,000 civilians in Kachin State and parts of northwestern Shan State.
The convictions of both Lahpai Gam and Brang Yung rest largely on confessions they made while being held incommunicado in Military Affairs Security custody without access to legal counsel. Mar Hkar’s attempts to have their confessions thrown out during a series of hearings for his clients due to their allegedly being derived from torture have so far been unsuccessful.
The judges presiding over the trials have also repeatedly blocked the defense’s attempts to introduce witness testimony that both men were working as day laborers or were at the IDP camp at the specific times that they were alleged by prosecutors to be receiving explosives training and engaging in other illegal activities.
After a series of hearings that were later criticized by a UN panel for being heavily biased against the defendants, both men were convicted on a number of charges relating to explosives and being a member of an illegal organization, the KIA, which is the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO). Lahphai Gam, 56, received a sentence of 20 years in prison, while the younger Brang Yung, 25, was given 21 years.
Mar Hkar, who has appealed his clients’ multiple convictions to the Supreme Court in Naypyidaw, says Lahpai Gam and Brang Yung should be freed immediately and compensated for the abuses they were forced to endure. The lawyer says his clients’ convictions are a complete injustice.
“Legally, there was no evidence to convict them, but they were convicted anyway,” he says. The basis of the appeal largely rests on the defense’s contention that the false confessions were improperly obtained by Military Affairs Security, an entity that Mar Hkar maintains is not legally authorized to obtain confessions in the first place. The Supreme Court’s decision on the appeal is expected soon, though it remains unclear exactly when this will happen.
Mar Hkar’s remains hopeful that the Supreme Court will bring justice for his clients while being all too aware of the serious shortcomings that continue to plague the Burmese justice system. If Burma’s highest court does order Brang Yung and Lahpai Gam released, it would be an unprecedented decision from a body that has, since civilian rule officially resumed in Burma four years ago, shown great deference to the military. The latter institution continues to hold significant influence throughout the country and particularly in Kachin State, where clashes with the KIA continue to occur on a regular basis.
The Myitkyina-based Mar Hkar has, since the Kachin conflict erupted in 2011, found himself repeatedly taking on the military in a number of high-profile human rights cases. That has included the disappearance of a Kachin woman named Sumlut Roi Ja, last seen alive in 2011 in the custody of Burma Army soldiers near the Chinese border, and the arrest and alleged torture of Brang Shawng, a refugee who like Lahpai Gam and Brang Yung was convicted of being a KIA operative on the basis of a confession made while in Military Affairs Security custody, which he too later retracted.
Although Mar Hkar was defeated in all of his legal attempts to have Brang Shawng freed, these efforts were not in vain. Following widespread public outcry in Kachin State in response to the army’s treatment of the man, who has deep scars all over his body to support his claims that he was tortured by army interrogators, President Thein Sein in 2013 issued a presidential pardon ordering his immediate release just weeks after his conviction.
There has yet to be any formal acknowledgment that Brang Shawng was in fact innocent of the numerous charges he was convicted of, but many in Kachin State see his pardon and release as proof that even senior government officials did not believe the army’s claim that the mine worker—known to his friends and fellow IDP camp residents as a simple but hard working family man—was a high-ranking KIA soldier who masterminded a series of attacks against army targets.
Thein Sein has so far failed to act on the formal request issued last October by a coalition of Kachin civil society groups to grant Brang Yung and Lahpai Gam a pardon of their own. The pair have instead had much better success internationally: In separate decisions that were released last year, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled that the men’s continued detention was illegal under international law and called for their immediate release. Their cases were brought to the UN group by lawyers working with the London-based Burma Campaign UK, an advocacy group that has taken a strong interest in the plight of civilians caught up in the Kachin conflict.
According to the UN working group, Burmese government officials did not rebut the submission made by the Burma Campaign UK’s legal team that in addition to being forced to engage in sexual acts, Lahpai Gam was “beaten from head to toe with an iron rod and had a bamboo stick rolled up and down his knees.” The UN group concluded that “such pervasive use of torture to extract evidence nullifies the possibility to fulfill the guarantee of the right to a fair trial.”
The Burmese government also did not provide the working group with any evidence to back up prosecutors’ claims that Lahpai Gam was indeed a sergeant with the KIA, leading the UN working group to declare: “The Army in this case is prosecutor and judge, and has arrest, investigative and trial authority, leaving little room for an impartial trial and outcome.”
Similarly, Burmese officials did not challenge the London lawyers’ submission that Brang Yung was also tortured in a manner that included having his “genitals burnt with candle fire.” That too was noted by the UN working group, which in its decision on the Brang Yung case, released a few months after it weighed in on the plight of Lahphai Gam, concluded that “The [Burmese] Government has not rebutted the allegation that Mr. Brang Yung was arrested in order to extract a confession under torture in detention.”
Mar Hkar, who believes that the UN working group’s decisions strongly bolster his clients claims of innocence, says he was very pleased that the Burma Campaign UK got involved with the case. In doing so, he says, the group has drawn attention to the ongoing human rights situation in Kachin State, which in many ways has been overshadowed by developments in the rest of the country.
“The UN decision has highlighted the injustices we are experiencing here,” adds the young lawyer, who maintains that his clients are far from being the only civilians in the state to be abused while in military custody. Although Mar Hkar sees the strongly worded UN decisions as significant victories on the road to his clients’ eventual freedom, the wives of Brang Yung and Laphai Gam appear less optimistic that they will see their loved ones outside of prison any time soon.
“They charged my husband knowing he was innocent,” says Hkawn Nan. “They charged him knowing it would ruin my family. The government is unjust.”