“Caught in the Middle” Abuses against Civilians Amid Conflict in Myanmar’s Northern Shan State
The decades-long conflict in northern Shan State has escalated in recent months following attacks by three ethnic armed groups on military installations and other locations in the country on 15 August 2019. The government stated that the attacks were likely to have been carried out in retaliation for recent successful anti-drug trafficking operations in the region. According to the three ethnic armed groups –calling themselves the “Brotherhood Alliance” –the attacks were launched in response to a military offensive in Rakhine State in the west of the country as well as repeated military operations in northern Shan state, despite a military ceasefire in the area. Civilians in northern Shan State, who have borne the brunt of these previous operations, looks set to endure fresh abuses, conflict, and displacement.
This report examines international human rights abuses and violations of humanitarian law committed since mid-2018 by parties to the ongoing internal armed conflicts in northern Shan State. On 21 December 2018, the Myanmar military announced a unilateral ceasefire in northern and eastern Myanmar, however, as this report shows, while there may have been a reduction ofthe number of clashes involving the military, Myanmar soldiers have continued to commit serious violations against ethnic minority civilians. The declared ceasefire period has also seen a continuation, and in some areas an escalation, of fighting among ethnic armed groups, some backed by the Myanmar military.
Amnesty International undertook research missions to northern Shan State in March and August 2019. In total, Amnesty International interviewed 88 people, including victims and direct witnesses to violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. The organization also met with local and international humanitarian officials, human rights defenders, community leaders, journalists, and political analysts, and analysed satellite imagery and photographs related to specific documented incidents. Amnesty International wrote to the Myanmar civilian government and military, and to four ethnic armed groups, outlining the organization’s findings, requesting information, and expressing readiness to discuss the situation in northern Shan State. At the time of publication, none had replied.
Amnesty International’s research found that the Myanmar military subjects civilians to arbitrary detention, often arresting men and boys on the basis of their ethnic identity and a perceived link with a particular armed group. As is the case in other conflict-affected areas of Myanmar, arrests and detention were often accompanied by torture and other ill-treatment. Soldiers beat, kicked, and punched detainees in order to obtain information about ethnic armed groups, or else to force detainees to “confess” to being members of such groups. In one incident in March 2019, Myanmar soldiers forced a 35-year-old ethnic Kachin fisherman to squat semi-naked with a grenade in his mouth after accusing him of links to the Kachin IndependenceArmy (KIA). He recalled one of the soldiers asking, “‘Are you KIA?’ I said ‘no’, then they started punching and kicking me. They forced me to take off my clothes [and] held a knife to my neck…They put a grenade in my mouth. I was afraid if I moved it would explode”.
In some cases, detainees were taken to military bases where they were held for up to three months. Detainees were usually held in incommunicado detention, without access to lawyers or –for the most part –family members. In one case, a man and a 14-year-old boy were made to undertake forced labour while on a military base in Kutkai town, home to several units from the military’s Northeast Command.
Amnesty International’s research also found that the military has fired indiscriminately in civilian areas, killing and injuring civilians and damaging homes and other property. Myanmar soldiers also shot and killed a 17-year-old ethnic Ta’ang boy in Kutkai Township, suspecting him of being a member of an ethnic armed group in February 2019. In another incident, a 17-year-old ethnic Kachin boy was injured by a mortar shell which was likely fired by the Myanmar military during fighting with the TNLA in early August 2019. Reports of civilians being killed or injured in indiscriminate attacks by the Myanmar military since the 15 August attacks warrant further investigation.
Myanmar soldiers also regularly move through –and at times stay in –villages, exposing civilians to the risk of attack. Amnesty International also documented cases where the military used schools as bases or barracks, and in one instance, a detention and interrogation site where they held and tortured a group of ethnic Kachin villagers. Though less reported by civilians than during Amnesty International’s previous research, at times Myanmar soldiers also confiscated property, taking food stuffs such as chicken and rice from civilians while using their homes and villages as temporary shelters and bases.
There is evidence that ethnic armed groups also commit abuses against civilians, in particular in areas where there has been intense fighting among armed groups during the military ceasefire. Fighters from ethnic armed groups have abducted civilians –usually men –or otherwise deprived them of their liberty, usually accusing them of supporting a rival group. Civilians were often beaten in order to obtain information about the other groups, as an ethnic Shan man, who was one of two villagers detained by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) in March 2019, explained: “They accused me of being SSA-S [Shan State Army-South] and giving information and food to SSA-S soldiers… They tied our hands [and] beat my back and thighs with sticks… I kept saying, ‘I am just an ordinary citizen, I am not in favour of any armed group’.”
Continuing a practice which has been well-documented by Amnesty International and others, ethnic armed groups have also subjected civilians to forced labour, including forcing them to act as guides. This was especially the case during times of increased fighting. Amnesty International documented several instances of forced labour in February and March 2019 as the TNLA/SSA-N and SSA-S engaged in heavy fighting around Hsipaw Township. While Amnesty International did not document specific individual cases of forced recruitment by ethnic armed groups, many interviewees said that in their villages, increasing numbers of young people, in particular young men, had left for towns, monasteries, or other countries in order to avoid being forcibly recruited.
Ethnic armed groups also remain engaged in widespread “taxation” and extortion, demanding money and food from villages and businesses. The regularity with which these are demanded leaves no doubt that the practice is sanctioned at the most senior levels. In an area with limited livelihood opportunities and where conflict has raged for more than eight years, such “taxes” have a deeply detrimental impact on people’s livelihoods. Ethnic armed groups also expose civilians to risk of attack, often by basing themselves within or moving through civilian populated areas.
The proliferation of conflicts in the area has come with an alarming increase in the numberof civilians killed or injured by landmines, improvised explosive devices(IEDs), or other explosive remnants of war(ERW). Civilians were usually affected while travelling to or from areas they rely on for work. Amnesty International interviewed a 47-year-old ethnic Shan man who was injured by a likely IED while he was collecting firewood in Hsipaw Township in March 2019. There had been heavy fighting between the TNLA/SSA-N and SSA-S around that time. The presence of landmines and IEDs has a serious impact on livelihoods, with villagers at times reluctant to travel to areaswhere they work for fear they may be injured by a blast.
The ongoing conflicts have also led to repeated displacement of civilians. In other parts of Myanmar, civilians have often been displaced to camps for years, whereas in northern Shan State, they tend to be displaced to makeshift sites for shorter periods – sometimes a few days, sometimes several weeks, sometimes longer – and then return to their homes and farmlands when the fighting has moved on to another area. The irregular but continual nature of this displacement poses challenges for humanitarian organizations working to provide aid and assistance. These challenges are exacerbated by bureaucratic restrictions on access for
humanitarian workers, which are imposed by both the military and the civilian government. Short-term displacement also has an adverse impact on livelihoods, in particular when people are displaced from their homes at key points within the land cultivation cycle.
These new and ongoing violations take place against the backdrop of a floundering national peace process. Despite promising to make peace and national reconciliation a priority, the NLD-led government has failed to make progress in negotiating an end to the country’s decades-long conflicts. Government failures to make meaningful political concessions coupled with ongoing offensives by the military, which under the 2008 Constitution does not operate under civilian oversight, have fostered deep mistrust among ethnic armed groups. As the 2020 elections draw near, the military is unlikely to allow the government any “successes” to present to voters. Indeed, as the peace process has stalled, the military has become increasingly assertive, announcing a unilateral ceasefire, now lapsed, and engaging in discussions to broker bilateral ceasefires with some of the ethnic armed groups. While efforts to secure a cessation of hostilities are welcome, for civilians, such agreements have rarely brought with them an end to violations and abuse.
Myanmar’s military has been repeatedly implicated in serious crimes in recent years, in particular in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States. A UN-established independent investigation has called for senior military officials to be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and war crimes in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan States, and genocide in Rakhine State. Despite this, members of the Myanmar military continue to enjoy impunity and the freedom and power to commit further crimes. The civilian-led government remains unable or unwilling to independently investigate serious violations, let alone push for prosecution or even suspension of suspects, and has repeatedly refused to cooperate with international bodies in uncovering the truth and delivering justice.
Many of the violations by the military documented in this report were committed by the Myanmar Army’s 99th Light Infantry Division (LID), whose members were identified by victims based on the distinct patches on their uniforms or sometimes the markings on their guns. Other violations were committed by soldiers from units under Northeast Command, the regional military command based in northern Shan State.
Units from the 99th LID have been operational in northern Shan State for several years and have been previously implicated in serious violations against civilians by Amnesty International and others. These units – known as combat divisions – are usually based in other parts of the country, and decisions to deploy them could only have come from the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing. From August 2017, units from the 99th LID were deployed in northern Rakhine State, where Amnesty International, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, and others have implicated them in atrocities constituting crimes under international law, including mass deportation, murder, rape, and the burning of Rohingya homes.
The fact that less than 18 months after these crimes, soldiers from the same division were committing new violations – including crimes under international law – highlights once again the need for the international community to take action and ensure that those responsible do not continue to enjoy immunity for their crimes. Specifically, the UN Security Council must fulfil its responsibility and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court. Given the renewed military operations in northern Shan State, and reports of further violations against civilians, the Security Council should act not only to ensure accountability for past crimes, but to try to prevent further abuse as consistent with its mandate.