Amnesty International has gathered fresh evidence that the Myanmar military is continuing to commit atrocities against ethnic minorities in the north of the country, with civilians bearing the brunt of offensives against multiple armed groups. The conflicts show no sign of abating, raising the prospect of further violations.
A new report, “Caught in the middle”: Abuses against civilians amid conflict in Myanmar’s northern Shan State, details the harrowing conditions of civilians arbitrarily arrested, detained and tortured by the military. It also highlights the abusive tactics used by ethnic armed groups as they confront the military and each other to exert control in the region.
“The Myanmar military is as relentless and ruthless as ever, committing war crimes against civilians in northern Shan State with absolute impunity,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southeast Asia. “Soldiers – and more importantly commanders – are subjecting civilians to the military’s hallmark brutality in the absence of any form of accountability.”
Amnesty International documented war crimes and other military violations against ethnic Kachin, Lisu, Shan, and Ta’ang civilians during two field missions to the region in March and August 2019.
Civilians who spoke to Amnesty International repeatedly implicated the military’s 99th Light Infantry Division (LID) in many of the violations. Units from the 99th LID were implicated in some of the worst atrocities against the Rohingya in Rakhine State since August 2017, as well as in war crimes and other serious violations in northern Myanmar in 2016 and early 2017.
“Wherever the 99th Light Infantry Division is deployed we see similar patterns of abuse and the commission of horrific crimes unfold. This highlights the urgency of international action to hold Myanmar’s military – not least its senior generals – accountable.”
Violations have continued even after the military announced a unilateral ceasefire, since lapsed, in December 2018. A recent escalation of fighting in the region – which the government has linked to illegal drug trafficking but which ethnic armed groups attribute to ongoing military offensives – has brought new reports of violations. Meanwhile, progress on the country’s stalled peace process looks unlikely as all sides gear up for general elections in 2020.
Familiar patterns of military violations
Myanmar soldiers have committed serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the last year, particularly in the northernmost townships of Shan State. These have continued even after the military’s announcement of a unilateral ceasefire in the area on 21 December 2018.
Soldiers have detained civilians – overwhelmingly men and boys – often torturing or subjecting them to other forms of ill-treatment. Most were accused of having links to specific armed groups based solely on their ethnicity, a sign of the climate of suspicion, discrimination and arbitrary punishment that Kachin, Shan, Ta’ang and other ethnic minority communities face at the hands of the Myanmar military. The military has also fired indiscriminately in civilian areas, killing and injuring civilians and damaging homes and other property.
On 11 March 2019, soldiers from the 99th LID detained and tortured two ethnic Kachin villagers in Kutkai Township. While the men were away fishing, fighting broke out between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). One of the men, 35, recalled what happened when they encountered the group of soldiers:
“[A soldier asked] ‘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… Then they forced me to squat with my fingers on my knees… They told me if I moved they would cut off my fingers… 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 incommunicado for up to three months and denied access to family and lawyers. In one case documented by Amnesty International, an 18-year-old man and a 14-year-old boy were subjected to forced labour, including digging trenches, while being held at a military base in the town of Kutkai.
Before being taken to the base the 18-year-old was beaten, then tortured further. He said: “They asked if I was a [KIA] soldier… I kept saying no, then they put a plastic bag over my head [and] tied it tight by holding it in the back. They were asking me if I knew any soldiers from the village. They did it six or seven times, each time for two or three minutes. I couldn’t breathe.”
Ethnic armed groups also committing abuses
Civilians are increasingly caught between ethnic armed groups who abduct, detain and sometimes torture men and boys, often accusing them of supporting a rival armed group. Amnesty International documented such abuses by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N), the Shan State Army-South (SSA-S), and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Armed groups have also subjected civilians to forced labour. Amnesty International documented several instances when civilians were forced to work as porters, carry fighters’ belongings and guide them to other villages during active combat, putting their lives at risk. Civilians also told Amnesty International that armed groups regularly extort food and money from them, threatening anyone who refuses with physical violence.
“Armed groups are responsible for heinous abuses against civilians, including abductions, forced labour and beatings. We are calling on all sides to stop targeting civilians, and to take all possible measures to keep fighting away from populated areas,” said Nicholas Bequelin.
Civilians paying the price
Thousands have been forced to flee their homes in the last year as the fighting moves closer to villages. Many people have been displaced multiple times. One women told Amnesty International she had fled her home four times in March 2019 alone.
Villagers often flee to makeshift displacement sites such as churches and monasteries, where they stay until the fighting moves to a different area. These short-term displacements can make it difficult for humanitarian workers to access people in need, made worse by government and military restrictions on humanitarian access.
Even those who flee are not safe, with an alarming increase since 2018 in the number of civilians killed or injured by landmines or improvised explosive devices.
Amnesty International is calling on all sides to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, protect civilians, and ensure humanitarian access. Armed groups must end acts of violence and intimidation against civilians and take all feasible measures to avoid civilian-populated areas.
“Those responsible for war crimes should face justice, all the way up to Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the Myanmar military’s Commander-in-Chief,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “Fighters and commanders in ethnic armed groups should also be investigated and held accountable for war crimes.”
“For too long the UN Security Council has stood by as civilians were abandoned to a ceaseless cycle of violence. It is time for the Council to stop dragging its feet and refer the situation in Myanmar to the International Criminal Court.”