Photo: Top leaders of the former military junta, including the current President, Thein Sein (inmediahk/flickr).
Burma’s seemingly unending cycle of internal conflict is perhaps closer to a resolution than at any other point in recent memory. But although progress towards a nationwide ceasefire has occurred over the past year, life on Burma’s frontiers is still marred by violence, uncertainty and military impunity, claims a policy memorandum released on Monday in Rangoon by the International Human Rights Clinic, a project of Harvard Law School.
The Clinic claims underlying military policies and practices that have prompted abuses over the years have not changed despite three years of political and economic reforms. Urging Burma’s military to end “indiscriminate attacks and wilful killings of civilians,”the report is based, in part, on the Clinic’s documentation of abuses that occurred during counterinsurgency campaigns in Karen State between 2005 and 2008.
“[The memorandum] describes a pattern of attacks on civilians that stretches back for decades, and continues today in places like Kachin State, northern Shan State and elsewhere,” Matthew Bugher, the paper’s lead author, said. “We believe these policies and practices remain in place, and that they pose a great threat to civilians throughout the country.”
The ceasefires signed between the government and various non-state armed groups over the past 25 years have been criticised for their incompleteness. Absent a comprehensive and durable political solution – such as the adoption of federalism desired by many ethnic people – ceasefires can act as a prelude to further fighting, giving both sides an opportunity to replenish stocks and reinforce their positions. Although the former generals who run Burma have traded in their fatigues for civilian garb, the military itself has had few incentives to reform its behaviours.
Burma’s counterinsurgency doctrine has explicitly targeted civilians for decades. The “four cuts” policy, which dates back to the 1960s, authorises the army to attack civilians in the hopes of denying insurgents “food, funds, recruits and intelligence.” Starting in 1997, the military has allegedly limited the quantity of supplies given to front-line troops, forcing them to prey upon civilians to meet their basic needs.
The report claims that the current incentive structure within the military rewards commanders and troops who attack civilians, concluding that “the failure of the Myanmar [Burma] military to hold its soldiers accountable for attacking civilians is due, in part, to a system that rewards unlawful behaviour.”
It highlights a litany of abuses faced by civilians across Burma’s conflict zones, including “shoot-on-sight” orders, extrajudicial killings, indiscriminate shelling and the offensive use of landmines by government forces. Burma is not party to the 1998 Ottawa Treaty, which compels signatory states to cease the “manufacture, use, transfer or stockpiling” of anti-personnel mines.
Despite the tentative successes of the peace process, the current period of reforms started out on a decidedly violent note in Karen State, with major fighting occurring around the time of the 2010 elections. The army unilaterally broke a long-standing ceasefire in Kachin State in 2011, and nearly three years of fighting has left more than 100,000 civilians displaced and vulnerable across Kachin and northern Shan states.
Although the humanitarian situation in Kachin and northern Shan states has degraded considerably since 2011, Karen State has been unusually peaceful since 2012, when the Karen National Union (KNU) entered into a ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw. For the majority of people living in Karen State’s conflict zones, security has improved greatly. “There’s no mistaking that the situation in many parts of the country has improved dramatically in the past two years,” Bugher acknowledged. “The peace process, although still fragile, has resulted in a significant improvement for security of civilian populations in many parts of the country.”
Although the KNU’s slow-burn struggle for autonomy has hit a lull, Bugher claims sporadic army attacks against civilians have been reported since 2012, indicating that despite signs of progress, a culture of impunity still holds sway.
“Recognising this progress does not detract from the fact that there are still very serious concerns relating to attacks on civilians,” he said.
“These ongoing reports of attacks suggest that improvements to civilian security are a result of a reduction in armed conflict, rather than fundamental institutional reforms,” Bugher said.
“The failure of the Myanmar [Burma] military to hold its soldiers accountable for attacking civilians is due, in part, to a system that rewards unlawful behaviour” — International Human Rights Clinic
In a series of recommendations to the government, commanders and enlisted soldiers, the Clinic urges the military to reverse its entire incentive structure. “Over time, the military’s central command would be increasingly populated by those officers with clean records, thereby promoting positive values such as respect for civilians and increasing professionalism,” the memorandum said.
The Clinic claims that attempts to discuss its findings directly with the military have thus far not been successful, and that the clinic has “not had engagement at that level that we want” with the government. But recent statements by Min Aung Hlaing, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, indicate that, at least at the highest levels, the military is increasingly buying into the notion that keeping civilians happy is good for the security of the state.
In December, The Mirror, a state-run newspaper, published a series of articles profiling Min Aung Hlaing, in which he made repeated references to “human security,” a loosely-defined concept in international relations and military affairs which puts civilian needs at the centre of the security stratagem.
At a press conference in Naypyidaw in early March coinciding with the11th ASEAN Chiefs of Defence Forces Informal Meeting, he reiterated the need for a broader approach to security, noting “non-traditional threats such as food security, health security, economic, social and political security, environmental security and personal security,” in a statement issued by the President’s Office.
Although the military’s apparent new focus on civilian well-being is undoubtedly motivated by self-interest, this “securitisation” of human needs signifies a momentous rhetorical shift for the Tatmadaw, which has long been obsessed with security and stability regardless of human cost. But there is scant evidence to suggest that much has changed in practice.
In October, the army launched a new round of attacks on civilians in northern Burma, which have continued sporadically to date. Despite advances to the peace process elsewhere in the country, nationwide peace remains a distant dream.
“In Kachin areas, forced evacuations are more than Karen [State], and also the damage to the villages … is higher than Karen, within a short period,” said Khon Ja, coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, an umbrella organisation for Kachin civil society groups. “The number of rape cases within a very short period is very high, and civilian casualties are very high.”