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Report Cites Evidence of War Crimes in Myanmar

November 6, 2014


The New York Times


BANGKOK — A report by Harvard researchers due to be released on Friday says there is sufficient evidence to prosecute high-ranking officers in Myanmar’s military for crimes against humanity and war crimes committed against an ethnic minority.


Millions have fled widespread and systematic human rights violations in Burma, which multiple international and local organisations have characterised as crimes against humanity and war crimes. These grave violations continue in a culture of impunity. (Photo: Ariana Zarleen)


The report, published by the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School, is based on a three-year study of villages near the Thai border, where the military conducted a large-scale offensive against ethnic Karen fighters from 2005 until 2008. The authors say that “widespread and systematic” attacks directed against civilians during the offensive justify war-crime prosecutions.


“Despite recent reforms, there have been few public discussions about Myanmar’s legacy of violence and oppression,” the report says, adding that “such issues cannot be swept aside during conversations about the country’s future.”


The report specifically names three commanders of the offensive against the Karen, all of whom are still active in the military. They are Maj. Gen. Ko Ko, who is currently Myanmar’s home affairs minister; Lt.. Gen. Khin Zaw Oo, now commander of the Army Bureau of Special Operations; and Brig. Gen. Maung Maung Aye, whose current position is unknown.


“We believe we have satisfied the standard of proof for the issuance of an arrest warrant,” said Matthew Bugher, one of the authors of the report.


Mr. Bugher presented the findings on Wednesday to Myanmar’s deputy defense minister, Maj. Gen. Kyaw Nyunt.


“He essentially said, ‘You got it wrong and your sources are all one-sided,’ ” Mr. Bugher said by telephone from Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s capital. “He talked about the difficulty of war and the difficulty of distinguishing between civilian and military targets.”


Among the 150 people interviewed for the report, seven were former soldiers, including one who described witnessing a gang rape by military personnel, Mr. Bugher said.


Asked about the report’s accusations of war crimes, U Zaw Htay, a director in the office of President Thein Sein, said: “We must not play the blame game.”


“In civil war, both the Tatmadaw and ethnic armed groups might have violated human rights,” he said, using the name for Myanmar’s armed forces. “Even America violates human rights in war,” he said.


The transition of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from military dictatorship toward democracy has been distinct from transformations elsewhere: Those leading the change are the same people who were responsible for decades of repression and impoverishment.


The Harvard report accuses the military of “firing mortars at villages; opening fire on fleeing villagers; destroying homes, crops, and food stores; laying land mines in civilian locations; forcing civilians to work and porter; and capturing and executing civilians” during the offensive against the Karen.


The authors acknowledge that “abuses occurred on both sides of the conflict,” but the report focuses only on the Burmese military.


The broad outlines of the report’s findings are not new. Human rights organizations have for years accused the Burmese military of terrorizing ethnic minorities, especially those who engage in armed resistance against the central government.


Fighting between the central government and the ethnic Karen minority, who inhabit the low-lying mountains near the border with Thailand, began soon after Burma attained independence from Britain in 1948. Despite a cease-fire signed in 2012, fighting has continued to flare periodically, including last month.


Although Myanmar officially abandoned military rule in 2011, its military is still very powerful and largely free of civilian oversight. One-quarter of the seats in Parliament are reserved for the military, and the defense minister and the home affairs minister, who is charged with overseeing the police, are both appointed by the army’s commander in chief.


Military impunity in Myanmar came under the spotlight in recent weeks after the army admitted to fatally shooting a journalist, Par Gyi, who was reporting on clashes between Karen fighters and the Burmese military. The army said that the journalist had been in its custody, that he was working for the Karen fighters and that he had tried to seize a gun, according to a military statement quoted by the Burmese media.


Journalists said they believed the story was untrue and questioned why the military had buried Mr. Par Gyi’s body without contacting his family. After an outcry by human rights organizations, the government ordered the journalist’s body exhumed.


Fortify Rights, an activist group that monitors human rights in Myanmar, has said it has evidence that the military continues to target civilians in northern Myanmar, where the army is battling fighters from another ethnic minority, the Kachin.


“The Myanmar Army shelled and razed civilian homes, attacked makeshift camps of displaced civilians, and entered villages while opening fire on civilians with small arms,” the group says in a six-page research note to be released on Thursday. Fortify Rights says the research covers incidents from 2011 through 2013 and is based on 100 interviews in the conflict zone.


Wai Moe contributed reporting from Yangon, Myanmar.