By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reporting from Burma
RANGOON, BURMA (BosNewsLife)– Burmese troops kill or torture civilians and destroy church buildings and even entire villages of the predominantly Christian Kachin minority despite pledges from Burma’s nominally civilian government that it seeks ceasefire agreements with ethnic groups, investigators said Sunday, February 12.
In a report obtained by BosNewsLife, rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said it recorded “grave human rights abuses” during a three week visit to the Rangoon and Kachin State on the China-Burma border.
The report was released Sunday, February 12, as Burma marks the 65th anniversary of the Panglong Agreement in which Burma’s government pledged, for instance, “full autonomy in internal administration for the frontier areas” in principle, including the creation of a Kachin State by the Constituent Assembly.
As Burma, also known as Myanmar, began observing the agreement with what is known as “Union Day”, CSW cautioned that while “a window of opportunity for change…after decades of oppression and conflict may have now opened,” the situation in Kachin and northern Shan States illustrate that “there is still a very long way to go”.
CSW’s East Asia Team Leader, Benedict Rogers, told BosNewsLife that the stories his team recorded from Kachin people “was among the worst” they ever heard. “A very high proportion of the people we interviewed had family members killed by the Burma Army. These were unarmed civilians, in their paddy fields or homes, who were not engaged in armed combat in any form.”
He added that the “accounts of torture and other abuses are a cause for very grave concern, and the humanitarian challenges facing the internally displaced people require an urgent and sustained response from the international community.”
It was not immediately clear whether the troops had received direct orders from the government to carry out the alleged abuses and there was no immediate comment from authorities.
CSW said it was in Kachin State when the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) held a first round of peace talks with the Burma’s government.
Minority groups within Burma, including the Kachins, have been fighting for more rights and independence from what they view as military dictatorship for decades.
Last week a ceasefire agreement between the army and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) was the seventh such accord between the government and ethnic rebel groups since former military junta leader and now President Thein Sein made a public call for peace talks with separatists late last year.
The ceasefire, one of 11 being sought by the government which came to power in 2010 in disputed elections is seen as aimed at strengthening Burma’s case for getting Western sanctions lifted.
Along with freeing political prisoners and holding fair by-elections in April, the United States and European Union have made peace with ethnic militias a pre-requisite for a review of their embargoes.
Negotiations with the KIO’s military wing, the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA). have been derailed however by persistent fighting that aid groups say has displaced as many as 50,000 people.
The tensions underscore the high political, economic and diplomatic stakes at play in the region, analysts say.
Kachin State is central to the energy interests of both Burma and China, hosting crucial hydropower dams and twin pipelines that will transport oil and natural gas to supply southwestern Yunnan province.
Yet, Christian rights investigators have also linked the reported crackdown on Kachins and other predominantly Christian ethnic groups to opposition among Burmese officials about Christianity.
“There has been a series of attacks against the mainly Christian Kachin people in Burma. At the end of November soldiers fired mortar shells against civilians and burnt down homes,” said rights watchdog Release International in a recent statement.
“In a separate incident, ten people, including seven children, were killed after an explosion rocked a Christian-run orphanage. The blast took place shortly after evening prayers. Sixteen children were injured, including two sons and a grandson of the Christian couple who run the orphanage,” the group said about the late November incidents.
Authorities reportedly detained the couple in charge of the orphanage, Dayawng Tang Gun and his wife Ja Dim, alleging they had made the bombs. “Residents suspect it was actually government officials who planted the explosives,” Release International explained.
CSW’s Rogers said violent incidents overshadow “clear signs of change in Burma, such as the release of significant numbers of political prisoners and the decision by [Nobel Peace Prize winner] Aung San Suu Kyi and [her] National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest parliamentary by-elections, which we should welcome and encourage.”
He said that as Burma’s Union Day is observed Sunday, February 12, his group has urge the government “to build on the reforms made so far by introducing institutional and legislative reforms required to lead the country to genuine change.”
Rogers added that reforms should include “amendments to the constitution, repeal or amendment of unjust laws, and a sincere effort to begin a political process that results in a mutually acceptable political solution for all the people of Burma.”
He said the Panglong agreement “was based on equal rights for all the ethnic nationalities, a degree of autonomy, and respect for ethnic identity, within the Union of Burma.”
President Thein Sein should “recapture that spirit today, and we call on the international community to develop a balanced response, recognizing and encouraging progress while maintaining pressure for real change,” Rogers added.