While the most recent iteration of the 21st Century Panglong Conference concluded without substantive progress on 29 May, 2017, emerging evidence of appalling human rights violations committed by the Myanmar  Army in ethnic conflict areas only underlines the need for the NLD-led Government to cooperate with the UN-mandated fact-finding mission. The UN resolution in March 2017 formed a mission to investigate human rights violations and abuses by the Myanmar Army and related security forces, which the Myanmar Government has vehemently rejected. Recent pledges to investigate the torture video of Ta’ang villagers and the bodies of three ethnic Kachin villagers found days after their arrest – incidents that emerged as the peace summit was ongoing – are insufficient given the Myanmar Army’s entrenched impunity. As peace talks falter, such incidences only underline the serious and urgent need for security of communities in conflict areas.
In the lead up to the second 21st Century Panglong Conference, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi touted the gathering as an opportunity “where hopes and concerns would be exposed.” Yet tensions were immediately evident on day one when Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing opened by criticizing ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) who had not signed the divisive and flawed nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) stating, “Ignoring this [the NCA] and pursuing other or the second way will be an attempt to loathe the establishment of a Union based on peace, democracy and federalism. As such, we have to assume that the attempt is tantamount to grabbing power and splitting from the Union through armed struggle line.” This statement clearly indicates that the Myanmar Army still has a limited understanding – if not an intentional neglect – of the aspirations of ethnic nationalities and the essence of the Panglong Agreement. As Saw Mutu Say Poe, Chairperson of the Karen National Union outlined in his speech, “We cannot solve the problem covering the whole nation with only those who signed the NCA. I want to stress that there are still other national ethnic armed groups who are stakeholders in building up a future federal nation.”
After 41 principles were discussed regarding what will be included in a future peace agreement, it was announced that 37 principles were agreed upon. However, concerns were raised over the procedure that led to this agreement, with the Secretary of the largest ethnic political party, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, pointing out the problems of the national-level dialogue forums and the lack of inclusivity. This is a key point, in that hasty proceedings in regards to an agreement on principles of federalism, without meaningful participation of many ethnic nationalities does not accurately reflect the genuine political aspirations and could threaten the stability of peace in the long run.
Yet as the Myanmar Army forged ahead with the flawed process based on signing the NCA, human rights violations taking place on the ground in armed conflict ethnic areas reinforces the need for accountability for crimes against innocent civilians. As talks continued, a graphic 17-minute video of ethnic Ta’ang men being beaten, threatened and tortured by the Myanmar Army went viral. The Myanmar Government faced pressure from civil society to investigate the actors who orchestrated and participated in the abuse, which led State Counsellor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to respond by pledging to investigate and hold those responsible. In a related harrowing incident the bodies of three Kachin men from an internally displaced persons (IDPs) camp near Hka Pra Yang village were found buried in shallow graves with signs of torture and bullet-wounds. The Myanmar Army is suspected of carrying out the murder as a military-led investigation in to these allegations begins.
In reality, it is highly unlikely that the soldiers involved will face any repercussions as the 2008 Constitution safeguards military impunity for such actions. A military courts-martial system is used in which the ultimate arbiter of justice is the Commander in Chief himself, Min Aung Hlaing. As the Burma Lawyers Council outlined in an analysis of the Myanmar Army’s impunity, “members of the military never have to appear before civilian courts, regardless of their crime.” A previous example is of the journalist Ko Par Gyi, who was tortured and killed by the Myanmar Army in 2014. Even while an investigation by the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission was taking place, the soldiers already went through a courts-martial and were acquitted, escaping punishment. Ultimately, accountability and justice was evaded by the Myanmar Army.
Meanwhile, conflict in ethnic areas has also led to increased displacement. The necessity for the Myanmar Army to halt military offensives against EAOs and militarization in ethnic areas is exacerbated by an urgent need for aid in IDP camps as food rations continue to dwindle. For example, IDPs from Ei Tu Hta Camp in Karen State protested against the Myanmar Army, calling for an end to occupation of land and the withdrawal of the Myanmar Army in order for them to return home in safety and dignity. Naw Hsa Gay, an IDP from Ei Tu Hta Camp stated, “I fled from home because of their [the Myanmar Army’s] abuses and I dare not go back. I want the Burma Army troops to move out completely from our area.” In a bitter twist of fate, as the peace talks continue in Naypyidaw, the IDPs in Ei Tu Hta Camp believe that the optimism around such high-level dialogue is putting pressure on them to return as services and rations continue to be reduced, despite the lack of guarantees of peace or even basic human security.
Notwithstanding the atrocities that continue to take place, there is little accountability for the crimes the Myanmar Army commits. In the week in which the three members of the UN-mandated fact-finding mission was announced, the Government again stated that it would not cooperate with the mission. While armed conflict, human rights violations and displacement continues, the international community must pressure the Myanmar Government to fully cooperate with the fact-finding mission. There must be a process in which accountability and justice are pursued and an end to impunity – an essential and necessary step in any process of reconciliation and peace-building, as well as Myanmar’s transition to democracy.
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