Kachin, Myanmar – A Myanmar military unit that has been sanctioned by the US Treasury Department was sent to Northern Rakhine State, where more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the border to Bangladesh, last year.
The 33rd Light Infantry Division (LID), known for its brutality, is now back in action in Kachin.
Where they go, human rights abuses follow, local aid workers say.
This is the same group of soldiers that carried out extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and sexual violence, as well as firing on fleeing villagers in Rakhine State in August and September 2017.
“These tactics are familiar to communities in Kachin,” says David Baulk, a Myanmar human rights expert. “The history of the 33rd LID’s operations in these areas is long and bloody.”
When fighting broke out in Kachin in April, the 33rd LID was involved as the conflict between the Myanmar army, or Tatmadaw, and Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intensified, local civil society groups say.
The Tatmadaw, in the first six months of the year, contributed to the displacement of 14,000 people Myanmar Humanitarian Brief – September 2018.pdf.
One group of these villagers now sits in a church compound in Myitkyina, Kachin’s capital.
“Fighting started in April. Four military fighter jets came over us. We heard a motor gun. Three people in our town were injured and one died. Our village had only 2,000 people, we were all friends,” says Phyo Su Lat.
“We hid in a farm for three days, helping the old, sick and young. Then every two to three days we moved through the jungle, nine times in total. We made camps in the forest hiding from the military who were chasing us. We could hear their planes and their guns, their machines and drones, night and day. We were scared that if they caught up with us, women would be raped, men tortured and killed.”
Three people died on the journey: a newborn baby, a five-year-old boy and a 60-year-old man.
Nyunt Sein Moe, another villager, says they were the lucky ones.
“In another town nearby, our friends were used as human shields and forcibly recruited. They had to travel with the army, and when they got to an area infected with landmines, two men were made to walk in front. A landmine exploded on one.”
The state-building project of the Myanmar government hinges on their control of the country's ethnic states, not least because these areas are home to extremely lucrative natural resources and large-scale development projects.
Dating back to 1962, the conflict centres around the KIA, an ethnic militia numbering near 10,000 seeking greater federalism or independence, and the Tatmadaw, which has traditionally used force in its efforts to maintain the state.
“At the heart of the Kachin conflict is the Myanmar government’s rejection of the Kachins’ longstanding demands for a genuinely federal state in which their human rights are protected,” says Baulk.
“The state-building project of the Myanmar government hinges on their control of the country’s ethnic states, not least because these areas are home to extremely lucrative natural resources and large-scale development projects.”
Both the KIA and Tatmadaw rely on natural resources for their survival, with much of the military’s income coming from jade alone.
“The places where the army moves are very strategic. Where they focus are areas of vast natural resources, like jade and ruby, or amber,” says Khon Ja, a researcher and advocate at Kachin Women’s Peace Network.
“They also go to places where we have national plans, such as road and rail construction, including the One Belt One Road project. Fighting at the moment is in KIA-controlled areas, indicating the army is encroaching on areas that are resource-heavy or part of economic plans. The Tatmadaw doesn’t ask if people will move, they just go and fight.
“It’s huge money. [China’s] One Belt One Road project is an economic corridor through Myanmar. The plan is to build infrastructure, road, rail waterways, to connect China’s landlocked region. Once they are able to open this corridor their goods can transport through the region and globally.”
With no political progress on these issues, a 17-year ceasefire ended in 2011, leading to thousands more IDPs.
In another camp in Kachin, IDP Than Khin Khin says: “In April, we heard military trucks move in with 1,000 troops. A military fighter jet flew over and shot at a location near ours and we heard heavy machine gun fire. We were scared. We fled to another village and waited there. Some of us were rescued quickly but the rest were made to wait at a checkpoint, near the conflict zone and with scarce food, for a week.”
A friend, Thuya Zaw Win, adds: “Our friends in some villages nearby could not get away. In areas of fighting, they are not allowed to leave, even though bullets were flying by their heads from machine guns. The villagers are kept close as human shields, so that the enemy doesn’t attack.”
Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have been working hard to help the displaced when they arrive, upgrading makeshift camps, creating newer camps that have electricity and clean water.
Yet even in the camps, IDPs to not feel safe.
Given shallow international financing, “in desperation some have gone back to their villages, putting themselves in danger. When people flee they leave everything and have to go back. They could step on a landmine or be arrested by the Tatmadaw and killed,” says Khon Ja of Kachin Women’s Peace Network. “Since 2017 five people from IDP camps have been killed by the Tatmadaw after being tortured. One was 65 years old and another was handicapped.”
“We do not want to go home: we are scared it is not safe. You need to find a solution to the conflict before forcing people to return,” says Htun Kyi Lwin.
Nyunt Sein Moe adds: “In a village nearby people were asked to return, and when they did they were shot. Everyone said it would be fine but they got caught in the middle of the conflict and had to flee again.”
As IDPs flee and linger in camps, Chinese companies are entering and planting bananas on their land for export back to China.
According to Kachin rights groups, there are now dozens of Chinese businesses and thousands of Chinese technical experts working in the state.
Often the original land owners are still in the camps, unaware their land has been taken.
In other cases, Chinese companies send agents who offer IDPs meagre sums to rent the land.
Desperate, many accept. Those who do not are threatened that if they do not agree, the government will create an industrial zone and rent it to the companies anyway, says San Htoi, joint general secretary of Kachin Women’s Association of Thailand.
When IDPs contest it, they fail as they do not have a land registration, having lived on it for generations.
The result is many do not have a home to return to, and consequently take a risk by going back to secure their land.
“[This is] making it illegal for people to go to their own land. This is hundreds of thousands of acres. In many cases, when people go back to their homeland in conflict areas, they have been arrested, or killed by the Tatmadaw,” Khon Ja says.
At the same time, humanitarian access has been decreasing, as civilian and military authorities work together to weaponise the denial of humanitarian aid to Kachin State, according to a report from Fortify Rights.
“It’s difficult to survive in camps because the government has been blocking international humanitarian aid,” San Htoi says. “Some camps in Kachin have no humanitarian support by NGOs whatsoever. So many IDPs do not want to stay. They want to return to their homeland, which they are worried about losing, but it’s dangerous.”
Before the 2015 election, many hoped situation would change as Aung San Suu Kyi swept to power.
But humanitarian access to areas beyond government control has become worse since the elections, says Pierre Peron, public information and advocacy officer in Myanmar for the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Before 2015 we would get travel authorizations to go to displacement camps in non-Government areas; since then that has become almost completely cut off. Since elections things have gotten worse for many people in Kachin. That’s the sad fact.”
For Baulk, the human rights expert, denying access to humanitarian aid is part of the Myanmar army’s long history of perpetrating extensive and systematic human rights violations against the Kachin.
“Extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, torture, the use of human shields, arbitrary arrest and detention, the targeted denial of humanitarian aid – the list goes on and on, and continues to grow day by day. And it will continue to grow as long as the perpetrators of these crimes are not brought to justice.”