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In the Dark – The crime of enforced disappearance and its impacts on the rural communities of Southeast Burma since the 2021 coup

November 8th, 2023  •  Author:   Karen Human Rights Group  •  9 minute read
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Introduction

Since the 2021 military coup, the State Administration Council (SAC) in Southeast Burma is systematically attacking villagers’ human rights, with total impunity. Despite the fact that civilians are being arrested, questioned, tortured, and disappeared throughout the country, accused of being anti-coup dissidents, many, especially villagers in rural areas, remain unaccounted for and unprotected. These crimes against humanity of enforced disappearance are dramatically increasing in Southeast Burma, with devastating consequences for local communities, including chronic fear and displacement, while receiving little international attention.

Enforced disappearance is a crime that involves the arrest, detention or abduction of individuals against their will. This deprivation of liberty is committed by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by the failure to give information on the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared. Perpetrators of this crime will refuse to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or disallow contact between the victim and lawyers or family to hide evidence of their actions, such as torture. By prohibiting communication and observation, the disappeared victim is taken outside the protection of the law and left vulnerable to abuse. The victims of this crime are the disappeared persons and any individual who has suffered harm as the direct result of it: family members and friends face total uncertainty on the condition, whereabouts and fate of the disappeared, suffering a never-ending wait.

This report investigates the crime of enforced disappearance committed in locally-defined Karen State by the SAC, including the political targeting of villagers, the forcible disappearance of civilians after breaking martial law, as well as the disappearance of villagers forced to act as human shields. It also presents incidents of enforced disappearance committed by other armed groups present in the region, including armed resistance groups. This report examines the impact of this crime on the disappeared victims themselves, their family members, and their communities. It describes the agency strategies used by villagers in response to this crime to help stakeholders better understand how support can be developed and delivered. The report also highlights the views and demands of villagers themselves, as well as their hopes for the future.

Methodology

In the absence of prior data on enforced disappearances occurring in locally-defined Karen State, KHRG set out to gather information on the gravity, nature and impact of this crime in Southeast Burma. KHRG conducted 35 semi-structured interviews, 15 of which were conducted with women, covering 27 incidents of enforced disappearances involving 63 disappeared civilians. The testimonies were collected from victims of enforced disappearances: disappeared villagers themselves who returned, family members, village and village tract leaders, and other villagers, friends and members of the affected communities. The interviews were conducted between June and August 2023 from six out of the seven districts of KHRG’s operational area: Doo Tha Htoo (Thaton), Taw Oo (Toungoo), Kler Lwee Htoo (Nyaunglebin), Mergui-Tavoy, Mu Traw (Hpapun) and Dooplaya. These interviews were conducted by local researchers and community members trained by KHRG to document human rights violations happening in their communities. This report is based on the aforementioned interviews, alongside 24 field reports (including incident reports, short updates, interviews and situation updates) concerning enforced disappearances documented by KHRG since the 2021 coup; this adds an additional 96 villagers disappeared.

In addition, KHRG conducted interviews with national and international organisations working on the crime of enforced disappearance in Burma, namely the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), and an international organisation providing legal assistance (name censored for security purposes). The interviews were conducted to inquire about the situation of this crime throughout the country, as well as to better understand the support services currently available for civilians. An interview was also conducted with a Karen National Union (KNU) spokesperson, for the same reasons.

Key Findings

The crime against humanity of enforced disappearance is systematically committed against villagers across Southeast Burma. Perpetrators are committing this crime against civilians with total impunity.

The State Administration Council (SAC) is the primary perpetrator, forcibly disappearing villagers, alongside a host of other attacks, acts of violence, human rights abuses, and contraventions of international law throughout locally-defined Karen State.

Enforced disappearances occur in the context of the ongoing civil conflict. The SAC targets civilians with force in their pursuit to impose their undemocratic rule, which local villagers have consistently declared to be illegitimate. The most common form of enforced disappearance occurs when the SAC accuses villagers of being dissidents, such as being part of the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) or affiliated with armed resistance groups.

Young men, aged 15-25, are commonly targeted, often suspected of being affiliated with armed resistance groups. Villagers are disappeared by the SAC from their homes, villages, when travelling by road, or in plantations and fields. They also risk disappearances at checkpoints or after curfew hours. Villagers are also arrested and forced to act as human shields, often disappeared during their time forced to walk with SAC soldiers.

Armed resistance groups also target and disappear men, particularly village heads, accused of being SAC informants and spies. These civilians face torture and death. In the complex civil conflict, other armed groups not affiliated with the SAC nor with the anti-coup resistance groups are also operating in the area and have also forcibly disappeared civilians.

The crimes of arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial killing committed in Southeast Burma in many instances also entail enforced disappearances. The crime of enforced disappearance lasts during the period of denial of information on the whereabouts, status or situation of the detained individual, or concealment of evidence through the refusal of visitation by lawyers or family. The crime continues until there is sufficient information on the fate of the victim, when the disappeared returns, or their remains are brought back to the family.

Incidents of enforced disappearances are gravely under-reported. Barriers include villagers fearing retaliation from armed actors, and the lack of mechanisms to hold the perpetrators accountable or seek justice.

The emotional impact of the crime of enforced disappearance weighs heavily on the survivors themselves, as well as their families and whole communities. Villagers who have been forcibly disappeared need safety and psychosocial services, on their return. As the crime remains unpunished in Burma, family members of disappeared victims need support to find information on the whereabouts of their loved ones, negotiate for their release, and practical and financial assistance to cope with livelihood and security problems. The needs of the whole community are highly influenced by the insecurity generated after the disappearances, causing displacement, internally and across the border.

Villagers mainly count on the mutual support of their community, as neighbours and local villagers respond to the immediate needs of the families of the disappeared. They provide emotional comfort, help to locate the disappeared or find out information, pray for the victims and provide practical support as needed. No formal support is available to villagers in rural Southeast Burma. Support mechanisms offered by international organisations in Burma are also failing to adequately reach those affected in Southeast Burma.

Recommendations

To foreign governments and international stakeholders:

  • Acknowledge that the State Administration Council (SAC) is at the origin of the current human rights and humanitarian crisis, and ensure that no legitimacy is given to the junta.
  • Recognise that justice for this crime is currently not available locally, and advocate for the establishment of mechanisms to investigate cases of enforced disappearance, by bringing new legal challenges to national courts (via universal jurisdiction) and international courts to try the members of the SAC for the crime against humanity of enforced disappearance.
  • Impose targeted sanctions on military junta officials responsible for this and other crimes.
  • Listen to and support local CSO/CBOs in their efforts to document enforced disappearances, advocate for victims’ rights, and provide comprehensive support for witnesses. This support should include relocation, psychosocial support, legal aid, and financial assistance.
  • Take diplomatic, political and technical action to protect human rights defenders, ensure that they can continue their work, and advocate for the immediate and unconditional release of those who are currently arrested or disappeared.

To international NGOs in the country:

  • Investigate the nature of this crime in ethnic and rural areas, acknowledging villagers are politically targeted, and expand the current services to reach all regions in Burma.
  • Establish coordination and cooperation with CSO/CBOs to make services accessible in rural areas, particularly for the negotiation of the release of victims with perpetrators.
  • Support local CSO/CBOs in creating programs geared towards psychological support for forcibly disappeared villagers, their families, and the communities […].
  • Increase financial and technical support for CSO/CBOs working in displacement camps along the Thai-Burma border, as these are often a refuge for those fleeing disappearances.
  • Establish crisis planning for human rights defenders and their impacted families.

To the Karen National Union (KNU):

  • Commit to upholding international human rights and international humanitarian law standards, including those related to the treatment of spies, the prohibition of extrajudicial killings and the right to a fair trial.
  • Equip Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) soldiers and individuals under KNU with the knowledge of international law, including the Geneva Conventions, and encourage them to respect and follow international law.
  • Take concrete actions against individuals under KNU who commit enforced disappearances.
  • Develop support programs for victims of enforced disappearance, including family members, in relation to their psychosocial and financial needs, including searching for the disappeared.

To the National Unity Government (NUG):

  • Provide members of People’s Defence Force (PDF) with knowledge of international humanitarian and human rights law and make sure they follow it.
  • Implement concrete actions to hold members of PDF and individuals under the administration of NUG accountable for the crimes they commit, including enforced disappearance.

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