Burma's New Political Prisoners in Kachin State

By Seamus Martov 17 July 2012

MAI JA YANG—While Burma’s nominally civilian government has received widespread praise from the international community for releasing a large number of political prisoners earlier this year, including famed student leaders Min Ko Naing and Ko Ko Gyi, a surge in the arrest of Kachin civilians has gone largely unreported.

Although precise figures remain allusive, reports from human rights groups and a steady flow of anecdotal evidence suggests that since June 2011, when fighting resumed between the Burmese government and Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), many ethnic Kachins have been arrested by security forces under suspicion of being rebel sympathizers.

On July 6, an estimated 1,500 demonstrators gathered in the Kachin State capital Myitkyina to demand the release of Lahtaw Brang Shawng, a local farmer who government authorities claim is a captain in the KIO’s armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), and participated in a bomb plot.

Brang Shawng, 25, was arrested on June 17 at an internally displaced persons camp in government-controlled Myitkyina Township where his family was taking shelter from nearby fighting.

Brang Shawng’s wife Ze Nyoi, who was allowed to visit her detained husband, told The Irrawaddy that he was forced to confess after being “punched, kicked and beaten for three days and nights.” According to his lawyer Mar Khar, Military Affairs Security personnel also used hot knives to burn Brang Shawng’s cheeks and carve into his thighs during interrogation.

His trial continues this week but observers already believe a guilty verdict is inevitable. Judge Myint Htoo has so far refused defense requests that Brang Shawng receive proper medical treatment for the injuries he sustained during interrogation.

Although Brang Shawng’s story is not uncommon, the decision by his wife and a pastor friend to organize a demonstration to publicize his plight is very rare indeed. Many other Kachin families whose loved ones have been detained during this conflict, which has raged since a 17-year ceasefire broke down over a year ago, remain reluctant to come forward and demand justice for fear of reprisals.

A 27-year-old Kachin NGO worker from northern Shan State told The Irrawaddy that her younger brother was arrested by government soldiers in Kutkhai Township by the conflict zone last November. The brother, 24, a recent university graduate, is now serving three years for being affiliated with the KIO, a charge his sister denies.

The NGO worker describes her brother as relatively apolitical and says he was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Her family decided not to try and publicize his case out of fear that doing so would only increase his jail sentence or bring more financial difficulty upon them—a sharp contrast with Ze Nyoi who carried a sign at the July 6 protest which read “Release my husband Brang Shawng!”

Bo Kyi, secretary of the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), an exiled organization dedicated to helping political prisoners and their families, says fear and intimidation are key factors that prevent Kachin families from speaking out about their loved ones in detention.

“We want to encourage family members of political prisoners to cooperate with us to help those arrested in Kachin State,” says Bo Kyi, himself a former political prisoner.

Senior representatives of the KIO requested during a series of peace talks with government negotiators that a 2010 decision to label the group as an unlawful organization be revoked. It remains unclear, however, when or if this demand will be formally granted, especially as the adversaries continue to exchange fire on a near daily basis.

Most of the individuals convicted for being affiliated with the KIO appear to have been charged with violating Article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act. However, rights groups including Human Rights Watch continue to report that large numbers of both Kachin civilians and combatants are detained and held with no formal charge or semblance of due process.

Bo Kyi says his organization has learned that at least 20 Kachins have been jailed over the past year for their alleged association with the KIO. His group is working to document these cases but many barriers remain including Kachin State’s geographical remoteness and deliberate efforts by the authorities to restrict access for both foreigners and political activists.

“Since the fighting began it has been very difficult to get detailed information about what has happened in Kachin State,” says Bo Kyi.

While many Kachin civilians arrested by the Burmese government are thought to have been detained in rural areas close to the ever-expanding battlefield, arrests have also taken place in urban areas far from the fighting.

Even Myitkyina residents have described numerous instances where young Kachin men have simply disappeared following brief stops at army and police checkpoints. Some of these were later found to have been used as porters for the war effort but many have not been heard from since.

Although there is no fighting in Myitkyina or its immediate surroundings, many residents no longer go outdoors after dark. In addition to the disappearances, the city has been rocked by a series of unexplained explosions over the past year. According to a local community activist, the explosions, which have wounded or killed dozens of civilians, have heightened the level of fear locally.

Probably the most famous Myitkyina resident cited by his fellow Kachin as being a political prisoner is Tang Gun, founder of a martial arts academy and boarding school for local youth. Well respected in the city, Tang Gun was arrested following a Nov. 13 blast that ripped through his home and adjoining workplace.

The blast fatally wounded two of Tang Gun’s sons and nine others—mostly children. Tang Gun’s wife and 27 others, again mostly children, were also injured.

Despite Tang Gun not being home at the time, authorities quickly determined he was responsible. According to the official explanation, Tang Gun, with the help of the KIO, had been using his school to teach children to use explosives and it was blown up accidentally. An accusation that is “completely ridiculous,” according to a Myitikyina-based community activist who has known Tang Gun for many years.

The pro-KIO website Kachinland News reported that Tang Gun was forced to confess to the crime under torture. A statement released by the KIO on Nov. 18 also denied any involvement with the tragic explosion.

The renewed conflict in Kachin State certainly has not helped Bauk Naw, an ethnic Kachin National League for Democracy (NLD) activist jailed during the 2007 monk-led Saffron Revolution, in his struggle for freedom. Bauk Naw and six other NLD supporters from elsewhere in Burma are the last of what was previously a long list of hundreds of jailed party members.

At the time of his arrest, Burmese exile media reported that Bauk Naw was detained along with several of his NLD colleagues in Bhamo (Bamaw) in southern Kachin State during a 1 am raid on Sept. 26, 2007. Although Bauk Naw may not be particularly famous among his fellow Kachin, his plight remains a point of concern among those familiar with his case who hope Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will push for a quick resolution to the current conflict.

A local university student volunteering with refugees in camps near Mai Ja Yang believes Bauk Naw’s continued imprisonment raises questions about the NLD’s commitment to Kachin issues. “It’s sad that the NLD can’t even get its own Kachin member free from jail,” she said. “If they can’t do this what can they do for the Kachin people suffering from the conflict?”