The three young men went out to get firewood and never returned. Their families spent days worrying, then heard gunshots crackling in the distance. Hours later, they found the mutilated bodies, hastily buried five miles from their homes at the Maihkawng internal displacement camp in Myanmar’s conflict-torn Kachin state. They suspected that soldiers from Myanmar’s army were responsible, but they didn’t expect anything to happen to the perpetrators.
On Monday, in the UN’s annual report detailing acts of violence carried out by armed forces in 2017, the Myanmar military was listed for the first time. The report, which was presented to the security council, found “widespread threat and use of sexual violence was integral to their strategy, humiliating, terrorising and collectively punishing the Rohingya community.” It’s a pattern of violence that the military, known locally as the Tatmadaw, has repeated for decades – kidnapping, torturing and murdering civilians with total impunity. However, this time was different. Shortly after the murders, a group of lawyers got in touch with the victims’ relatives and encouraged them to give statements to the coroner and demand a post-mortem report. The result was a hand-scrawled document that detailed shattered skulls and bullet wounds, helping to make it impossible for the Tatmadaw to plausibly deny its soldiers’ crimes. In January, seven months after the killings, the six soldiers responsible were handed 10-year prison sentences by a court-martial. “Without that report, the soldiers wouldn’t have been convicted,” says Khun Naung, chairman of the Kachin Legal Aid Network, also known as Shingnip.
In a country where the army is considered untouchable, the lawyers have helped in recent years to secure a handful of rare convictions against soldiers who violate human rights. The group’s 20 lawyers work pro bono and even pay rent out of their own pockets for the traditional wooden house that serves as their office. They founded Shingnip in Kachin’s capital, Myitkyina, in 2011, shortly after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the military and Kachin rebels caused a spike in abuses by government troops against civilians, says Khun Naung. “They’re working on all the cases no one else dares to,” says David Baulk, a Myanmar-based researcher for Fortify Rights, a group that monitored the Maihkawng case. While these convictions are a “first step” in the fight against impunity, he adds, they are a long way from delivering real justice. For one thing, most of the trial was held in secret. “The Tatmadaw kept the victims’ families in the dark for about five months,” says Baulk. There are even doubts as to whether the convicted soldiers in this and other cases are serving their prison sentences because the authorities refuse to say where they’re being held. Even so, with the police under military control, the investigative work of Shingnip and others is the closest thing to accountability for people in Myanmar’s conflict zones.
Shingnip also helped secure a two-year manslaughter conviction last year against a soldier who had shot dead a student named Gum Seng Awng in front of several witnesses on the streets of Myitkyina. Most were too scared to talk, but Shingnip found two willing to give statements. The sentence was much lighter than the family had hoped; Shingnip was pushing for the soldier to be tried for murder. But their work on the case led to the release of Gum Seng Awng’s friends, who had been part of the altercation that led to his death. The military claimed the friends had tried to steal soldiers’ guns and shoot them, but the witnesses disputed that. Other claims were easier to debunk. “The soldier said in a press conference that he drove back to his base this way and was attacked by Gum Seng Awng on the way,” says Khun Naung, sketching a crude map of Mytikyina on a whiteboard at his office. But that doesn’t make sense because there was a much shorter route, he adds. “It’s obvious the soldier followed them and then the trouble started.”
It’s unclear exactly why the military chooses to prosecute certain cases, but the work of activists, lawyers and journalists who uncover the truth is a major factor. Earlier this month a court-martial sentenced seven soldiers and officers to 10 years in prison for taking part in a massacre of 10 Rohingya men during a military crackdown in Rakhine state that the UN says may amount to genocide. The killings were uncovered by two Reuters journalists, who as a result are facing 14 years in prison under an official secrets law. One of the reporters, Wa Lone, had helped to expose another massacre in eastern Shan state in 2016, which led to five-year sentences for seven soldiers. In both cases, the military did nothing to remedy the rules and policies that enable the abuse of civilians, says Sean Bain, legal consultant for Myanmar at the International Commission of Jurists, a group that promotes human rights and the rule of law. The Tatmadaw only admitted to the killings as a form of “damage control” in the face of irrefutable evidence, he adds. “It’s all window dressing.”
Credit: Joshua Carroll for The Guardian, 20 April 2018.