Some critics say the government’s move against the hard-line nationalist Ma Ba Tha group comes too little, too late.
Bhamo, Kachin State, Myanmar – Morning arrives slowly at Pan Kha Kho refugee camp. It takes a moment for the lemon sun to creep over the horizon, pausing before rising to reveal rows of corrugated-iron roofs lining the valley ahead.
Pan Kha Kho is one of nearly 200 camps for internally displaced people in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State. These temporary shelters are now home to more than 100,000 people, forced to flee their villages owing to violent clashes between the Myanmar Armed Forces (or Tatmadaw) and a group of fighters known as the Kachin Independence Army(KIA).
Following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire, the two forces resumed fighting in 2011. In response, the Tatmadaw banned aid agencies from entering KIA territory, cutting off access to humanitarian support for the local population.
“We had no choice. The soldiers came and they took over my home,” said Jing Qwan, 36, a midwife from Maumo township.
“I grabbed my daughter by the hand and we ran to find safety here at the camp. But that’s when the trouble really began.”
As she sorted methodically through a pile of red chillies, Qwan, weeping, described how a group of soldiers entered the camp and raped her five-year-old daughter.
“I came home and I found her collapsed on the floor. She got sick several times. Then I noticed the cuts and bruises on her legs. She can remember every detail. She is terrified those men will come back,” said Qwan.
The judicial vacuum in this part of Myanmar means that there are no structures in place for women such as Qwan to report their case or hold perpetrators to account.
David Mathieson, senior Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that these allegations are consistent with cases they have documented.
“Human rights violations continue, with the Burmese military abusing civilians, including sexual violence and extrajudicial executions,” he said, referring to the country by its former name.
“These abuses take place in an environment of military impunity, another factor that makes internally displaced people too fearful to return to their homes.”
Silence and exploitation
For those who act as witnesses to cases such as these, the consequences can be severe.
Mai Ja, 21, explained how she and her one-year-old daughter had received death threats from other members of the camp since she acted as a witness in a rape case involving a 73-year-old woman in her community. She said her husband, a drug and alcohol addict, beat her when he found out that she had provided a statement to the camp manager.
|Myanmar: Steps towards peace?|
“I want to run away from this life,” she said, her eyes fixed on the floor, “but I have nowhere else to go.”
Amnesty International’s Myanmar researcher Laura Haigh says the lack of a judicial structure in the camps discourages many from reporting cases.
“The culture of silence that surrounds sexual and gender-based violence means that many cases remain underreported and, when reported, perpetrators remain unpunished,” said Haigh.
“This is because impunity for state officials is rooted in Myanmar’s legal framework and because victims and their families face threats and intimidation when they speak out,” she added. “This has to change.”
Uw Ha Tha, the security manager at the Mai Khang camp, 120km south of the border with China, recounts the rapid increase in prostitution networks in the past year. He has received reports of girls as young as 11 being lured into sex work, and said they earn five or six times the wage of a tea shop waitress – around $15 per client.
“Every evening, I see cars drive around the perimeter of the camp. The girls huddle close to the gate and then the car door opens and they are driven away,” he said, describing the recruitment methods used by the leaders of these networks.
“Many of the girls become addicted to drugs. Or they are drawn in by the flashy cars, dinners and clothes. Some simply want an occupation,” said Tha, adding that his deepest fear is for the future of the young people living at the camp.
“These girls have no home, no education and no work. What else can they do?”
Forced labour, displacement
Many women and girls in Kachin State are forced to find low-paid work to support their families, often in tea shops, on construction sites or as domestic workers for wealthy families elsewhere in the region.
Following the murder of her parents, Jai Ka, 14, sought work as a live-in au pair for a Chinese family. There, she said, she was beaten for making minor errors and forced to work additional hours, unpaid.
“I earned $3 per day, working from 6am to 6pm. If I made even the smallest mistake, they would refuse to pay me for that day,” she said.
“Now I work with my 10-year-old sister, carrying cement for construction workers near our camp. It is tough work, but we feel safer here,” said Ka.
Acts of violence are not only committed within the camps, but also as people are fleeing to find safety, and against those who are left behind.
Kai Htan, 55, was forced to leave her disabled son in her home because she did not have the strength to carry him to the forest.
She later heard that he had been tied against a tree and beaten. He died from the impact to his internal organs.
Htan now dreams of returning to her village.
“I want to see the place where he died and to honour him, but I can’t. For now, I live in the shadow of my son,” she said.
Protections for IDPs
Holding perpetrators to account continues to be a problem, with both sides of the conflict accusing each other of impunity and neither side accepting responsibility for the protection of the internally displaced people in the villages and camps scattered around the state.
A member of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the political and military coordinating body, who declined to be named, said: “We call on the Burmese government to stop firing indiscriminately on refugee camps, to stop harassing and raping women and to respect international human rights laws.
“To achieve genuine and lasting justice and peace, precise policies and procedures must be set for political dialogues.”
The Myanmar government has repeatedly denied allegations of human rights abuses. In a public statement, it called on local and international actors not to implicate soldiers, stating that evidence must be sought before accusing the armed forces of these crimes.
It added that the government is investigating allegations and would not tolerate abuses should soldiers be found to have committed acts of violence.
Without the social and judicial structures in place to report these crimes, communities in some camps across Kachin State have started to self-organise into committees with support from local grassroots organisations, such as the Gender Development Initiative (GDI).
Monitors for each camp have been trained by the GDI to report human rights abuses and women have formed groups to offer each other psychological support. In the past year, more than 100 monitors have participated in the week-long training course at the GDI’s centre in Bhamo.
“It is important that we carry out this work so that people feel safe,” said La Rai, a monitor on the programme.
The majority of communities have been receptive to the role of the monitors, but some initial issues have arisen.
Rai says several of his colleagues had been arbitrarily detained and tortured by the Myanmar military for seeking to protect members of their community. He is hopeful that these threats will decrease as more monitors are trained to identify and manage cases.
“We want to be able to go to the fields to harvest our paddies; to move freely without having to show our identity cards; to be able to return to our homes without fear,” he said.
“But at the moment we have no freedom to do that.”