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“Why would they target us?”: Exploring patterns of the Burma Army’s retaliatory abuses against villagers across Southeast Burma

June 16th, 2023  •  Author:   Karen Human Rights Group  •  7 minute read
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Introduction

Since the 2021 military coup, the Burma military junta, calling itself the State Administration Council (SAC), has carried out violent attacks against civilians throughout the country in an effort to crush all dissent and opposition to its rule. These attacks include assaults against villages and abuses against villagers in Southeast Burma. Since the coup, KHRG has received reports of increased human rights violations committed in Karen State, in particular where the Burma Army has targeted civilians instead of armed groups. While the United Nations’ Security Council has acknowledged the SAC’s targeting of civilians, little analysis has focused on the underlying logic that informs these attacks, particularly in ethnic states. Without an in-depth investigation into these patterns of abuse, the struggles of villagers and the conflict dynamics in Karen State cannot be fully understood. A careful investigation into these matters can also inform national, regional and international measures to protect civilians in Burma and to advance meaningful peace and justice in the country.

For these reasons, this report provides an analysis of the Burma Army’s practices of deliberately targeting civilians in Karen State, looking specifically at how villagers in Southeast Burma understand and articulate human rights violations committed by the Burma Army. The report examines patterns of retaliatory abuses, as recounted by villagers, as well as other incidents of violence against villagers in the region documented by KHRG since the 2021 coup. The report clarifies the illegal and inhumane consequences of the SAC’s activities and identifies several factors underlying the SAC’s violence against civilians: the SAC targets villagers, considering them as “enemies”, averse to the regime due to their support of anti-coup protests or because of their perceived link with ethnic armed groups. SAC military also commits abuses against villagers to spread terror in the region and impose their rule, as well as to deter attacks by local armed forces against them. Under-supplied SAC soldiers also loot villagers’ properties. On numerous occasions, the targeting of nearby villages occurs after skirmishes between SAC and local resistance forces in the area. Lastly, villagers who refuse to comply with SAC orders are often targeted in overt retaliation.

Military attacks against civilians are not accidental, nor are they the result of the Burma Army’s inability to distinguish civilian targets from military ones. Instead, these attacks are deeply rooted in an established practice of scapegoating in Southeast Burma, wherein villagers are blamed as a group for their perceived opposition to the military. Villagers are subjected to collective punishment, as the SAC launches punitive attacks against them for acts committed by other individuals considered to belong to the same group. By targeting civilians this way, the SAC violates international law, including by committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Key Findings

The military junta regularly targets civilians in Southeast Burma, in a deliberate manner, instead of directing their attacks to armed resistance groups, which has devastating and outspread consequences for local communities. These abuses take the form of air strikes and indiscriminate shelling towards villages, shooting villagers on sight and arbitrarily arresting them, and destroying and looting their properties, among others.

Several distinct, yet often overlapping patterns can be identified in villagers’ testimonies explaining the mechanisms behind the SAC’s targeting of civilians. These patterns share a notion of scapegoating and collective punishment linked to the Burma military’s perception of villagers in Karen State as opponents and thereby prompting any retaliatory action against them, leading to grave abuses against civilians.

Conventional understandings of the conflict in Southeast Burma fail to grasp key conflict dynamics on the ground. The reality is not a two-party conflict between the SAC troops and ethnic armed organisations (EAOs), with neutral civilians collaterally impacted. Rather, civilians are targeted intentionally and systematically by the military junta, thus showing its disregard for human life and its illegitimacy.

The SAC attacks launched against civilians are in breach of international human rights, humanitarian and criminal law, particularly the interdiction of discrimination against any person on arbitrary grounds, as well as the prohibition of targeting civilians based on the principle of distinction between military and civilian targets. Military leaders must be prosecuted as such.

Armed conflict is only one end of the spectrum of resistance against military control within society in Karen State, and villagers’ agency strategies are key to the civilian opposition against the military. Such efforts should be creatively supported, and conflict-sensitive understandings of the situation should be included in regional and international discourses and responses in Burma aiming for the protection of civilians and meaningful peace.

Villagers’ voices and demands for decisive measures against and protection from SAC’s abuses are met with inaction by the international community, enabling the human rights and humanitarian crisis to worsen. Moreover, the lack of a meaningful response may push villagers towards taking up arms, and increase militarisation in the country.

Recommendations

To the international community, ASEAN, NGOs, funding agencies, and individual governments:

  • Acknowledge that the military junta is the root cause of the current human rights and humanitarian crisis, and refrain from giving any legitimacy to the junta, including by signing agreements with them and presenting credentials to them.
  • Call on ASEAN to suspend Burma’s ASEAN membership until a democratically-elected civilian government is restored; abandon the current Five-Point Consensus and develop a new plan that addresses the critiques outlined by numerous stakeholders; and cooperate with international and local actors to end the junta’s violence against the people of Burma.
  • Support current investigations and proceedings to prosecute junta leaders, and seek out all additional opportunities (through ad hoc tribunals, universal jurisdiction and other mechanisms) to hold the Burma military accountable for its vast array of crimes.
  • Broaden the scope of accountability in future proceedings to include SAC crimes committed against Karen peoples, not yet covered by current investigations, as well as to investigate the war crime of collective punishment and the crime against humanity of persecution.
  • Increase financial support for and collaboration with local human rights organisations and actors operating on the ground to ensure that the widest representation of voices and experiences of oppressed peoples in Burma are considered.
  • Acknowledging the SAC practice of purposely targeting civilians in Southeast Burma, ensure increased and adequate humanitarian assistance and protection, including support for victims of air strikes, displacement, property destruction, torture, arbitrary arrest, and other abuses.
  • Ensure that the SAC is unable to hold decision-making power over the distribution of aid, and that funds are not indirectly being rerouted through the SAC.
  • Consult and include local actors and communities in decision-making regarding humanitarian response and the resolution of the crisis, and prioritise and strengthen methods of service delivery and communication that rely on local CSO/CBOs and ethnic service providers.
  • Urge neighbouring countries to ensure that their authorities do not deny entry to people crossing the border seeking refuge, as well as to allow the passage of aid into Burma through cross-border aid organisations and local CSOs already operating in the area.
  • Suspend exports of aviation fuel and all arms transfers to Burma, including weapons, munitions, surveillance technologies, and other military and security equipment, and take action to avoid contributing to these supply chains, whether directly or indirectly.
  • Support coordinated and targeted sanctions against junta officials suspected of responsibility for international crimes and other serious violations of international law, as well as against their affiliated companies.

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