воскресенье, 9 ноября 2014 г.

Will Burma end one of the world’s longest wars?

By Annie Gowen


In a grim scene earlier this week, the body of a journalist slain in the custody of the Burmese military was exhumed from a grassy grave and taken to a hospital for an autopsy.
The freelance journalist, Par Gyi, also known as Aung Kyaw Naing, had been arrested covering ethnic clashes along the country’s southeastern border, and his death at the hands of the army sparked international outrage.

Just days before President Obama is scheduled to visit Burma for a summit of Asian leaders, the country’s insurgencies, among the longest-running in the world, are again in the spotlight.

Prominent rights groups say Aung Kyaw Naing’s death is one more sign that the military is engaging in the same brutality against citizens that it exhibited during decades of military rule in Burma, before the generals ceded power to a nominally civilian government in 2010. They say it also indicates that the country’s transition to democracy is not going as hoped.

The Burmese army said Aung Kyaw Naing was a rebel who was killed during an escape attempt, but the country’s national human rights commission has ordered an investigation.

A dizzying number of armed ethnic groups have operated in Burma, also known as Myanmar, since the country’s independence in 1948, with as many as 48 active since 2009, according to the Myanmar Peace Center. The government has signed cease-fire agreements with 14 of these groups individually, but a nationwide cease-fire remains elusive. A peace accord was one of the key pledges that President Thein Sein made to Obama when Obama first visited Burma in 2012.

The human rights organizations Fortify Rights and the International Human Rights Clinic at Harvard Law School both released reports this week alleging that Burmese armed forces, including some high-ranking officers, committed war crimes against civilians during the country’s ongoing conflict with ethnic militias in its east and north.

“It basically demonstrates that the military is conducting itself in the same way it has for decades, which is totally inconsistent with rosy narrative of human rights reform that the government is presenting to the world,” said Matthew Smith, the executive director of Fortify Rights.

The complicated peace negotiations, which appear to be stalled, are often overshadowed by the humanitarian crisis with Burma's Rohingya Muslim population and the need for constitutional reform -- issues of concern for the Obama administration, which has supported Burma’s steps toward democratic reform. The country’s constitution still bars Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the pro-democracy party, from becoming president.

Suu Kyi, at a news conference Wednesday in Rangoon, said she thinks the country has not progressed in the last two years. "We do think there have been times when the United States government has been overly optimistic about the reform process," Suu Kyi said.  "What significant reforms have been taken within the last 24 months?"

Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, said in an address last week at the United Nations that this ethnic strife continues to cause “significant suffering” in the country of more than 55 million, isolated as a pariah state during decades of military rule. Around 613,000 people have been displaced from various areas of conflict around the country, according to the United Nations.

“Serious human rights violations are being committed on both sides, and I am particularly concerned by continued reports of arbitrary detention, torture and impunity on the side of the military,” Lee said.

One of the largest militias is the Kachin Independence Army, a group of between 5,000 to 10,000 fighters in the country’s north, home to thousands of ethnic Kachin Christians. (Burma is about 60 percent ethnic Burman, with the remaining 40 percent comprised of more than 135 ethnic groups.) The Burmese military and the Kachins have been fighting for much of the last 50 years, with the most recent spate of violence flaring in June 2011.

In its report, Fortify Rights detailed what it said was an ongoing pattern of abuse by the Burmese military against civilians in Kachin state. It alleged that the Burmese army had shelled and razed homes, attacked makeshift camps built for refugees and committed extrajudicial killings in the last three years. In a previous report in June, Fortify Rights researchers also interviewed Christians in Kachin who said they were targeted because of their faith.

When asked generally about alleged human rights abuses committed by the military, the president’s spokesman, Ye Htut, said in a June interview that both sides had contributed to the problem and that the ethnic strife had mostly been resolved, except “a small conflict in the Kachin area.” In addition, “civil society [activists] are more actively working in that conflict area than they have in the past,” he said. Ye Htut did not return telephone calls or an e-mail request for comment this week.

The government has said it expects to sign a peace agreement with the ethnic militias this year or in early 2015.

Many activists and skeptics in the West regard that as an optimistic timeline. Some of the disputed territories are rich in timber and other natural resources, as well as mines of coveted jade, and the ethnic groups want to share in that bounty. So even if there is a nationwide cease-fire agreement -- as the government hopes -- and all sides lay down their arms, experts say Burma’s internal conflict is far from over.


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