Four Years On, Still No Justice for Sumlut Roi Ja

By Nyein Nyein 29 October 2015

On Oct. 28, 2011, Sumlut Roi Ja was harvesting corn on her family’s land when she, her husband and her father-in-law were abducted by Burma Army soldiers. The two men managed to escape, dodging bullets and running through thick hillside vegetation, but Roi Ja was not so lucky.

Four years later, Roi Ja has yet to return, and her family believes she never will. The then-28-year-old ethnic Kachin mother is largely believed to have been raped and murdered, as witnesses had informed the family about one year after her disappearance.

Roi Ja and her family were believed to have been abducted by a number of troops belonging to Burma Army Light Infantry Battalion 321 near the town of Loi Jel in northern Burma’s Kachin State. The incident occurred just months after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and the Burmese government, and has become an oft-cited example of the tragic fallout that civil war and military impunity has had on ethnic communities.

Dau Lum, Roi Ja’s husband, sought justice for his young wife at every level of Burma’s judiciary, ultimately bringing her case—Dau Lum vs. Lt-Col Zaw Myo Htut, commander of LIB 321—to the Supreme Court. The suit was dismissed due to lack of evidence in March 2012, and her family has lost all hope of reprisal.

Later that year, various civil society groups began to take up the cause. The Kachin Women Association of Thailand (KWAT) sent a letter to President Thein Sein pleading with him directly to re-open the case, but no action followed. Roi Ja’s family has appealed to the Kachin State chief minister, the district governor, the commander of LIB 321 himself, all to no avail.

The case struck a deep and resonant chord among many of Burma’s ethnic minority communities, particularly Kachin people affected by war. Roi Ja is, sadly, among a long list of women who suffered abuse by the Burma Army, which typically enjoys impunity in conflict areas.

Burma Army troops have been repeatedly implicated in sexual violence; KWAT has documented no less than 74 cases of sexual assault allegedly committed by Burmese soldiers since 2011, during the so-called reformist era led by Thein Sein. KWAT secretary Seng Zin told The Irrawaddy that most of those cases were resolved in military courts, beyond the reach of public scrutiny.

One such case, which caught the attention of the international media and drew criticism from all angles, was the alleged rape and murder and two young Kachin teachers in northern Shan State in January of this year, also widely believed to be the work of Burma Army troops. The government promised an investigation into the horrendous incident, but no one has yet been held responsible.

“There are many cases that are far worse than that of Sumlut Roi Ja,” lawyer Mar Khar, who represented Dau Lum, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, “but only with the help of her family were we able to bring her case to the highest court.”

One of the major obstacles to justice in conflict-affected areas is fear of retribution; many villagers who have suffered abuse or losses are afraid to speak out because they believe their families will be subjected to further abuse.

Roi Ja’s courageous family is not alone in their suffering, nor are they alone in their futile search for fairness. No one has yet been held accountable for the death of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, also known as Par Gyi, who was killed in the custody of the Burma Army late last year. Likewise, the abduction and death of Kachin villager Ung Sau Tu Ja earlier this year is also unresolved.

As another year goes by and Roi Ja’s daughter grows up without her, her family refuses to stand down. Roi Ja, while lost, remains an immortal reminder of the human cost of Burma’s civil war and its people’s hunger for justice.