Brutal reality behind junta's benign face

27 November 2011 | Bangkok Post | Newspaper section: Spectrum

While the international community and Asean reward Burma's government for its cautious reforms, the army is looting, burning and destroying village farms and forcing thousands of Kachin civilians into makeshift camps.

Ure Seng Raw, a rice farmer, sits on a rough bench in the small bamboo hut she now calls home and explains why she endured a tough two-day mountain walk from her village of Rawt Jat to live here.

''The Burmese army shelled our village on June 15. We were scared. We could see unexploded shells around the houses. We were worried the soldiers would take us as porters and rape our daughters.''

Ure Seng has good reason to be worried. In June and July this year the Kachin Women's Association Thailand documented the rape of 32 women and girls in Kachin State by the Burmese army _ 13 of them were killed.

Ure Seng shares the eight-metre by six-metre hut with another family also forced from their home when the Burmese army attacked their village.

As Ure Seng tells her story, the fast flowing waters of the Je Yeng Hka River that separates Burma from China crash over rock-strewn rapids. Tree-covered hills rise steeply from the flood plains on both sides of the river _ a tranquil scene despite the thousands of displaced villagers and row upon row of plastic-roofed bamboo huts dotting the riverbank.

The Je Yang Hka camp houses 4,991 people displaced from 34 villages in the surrounding area. At the time of writing there were a total of 19 camps housing 30,032 people forced from their villages when fighting started between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in June this year.


Ure Seng says she has lost everything her family worked for more than 20 years to secure.

''We had peace for many years. We're rice farmers and had a 2.43 hectare orange plantation. We were making money. We could afford to send our kids away to school. Life was good for us.''

Ure Seng says the fighting that broke out in early June left people in her village with little choice but to run.

''We had to leave. There was a lot of fighting. The Burmese army bombed our village. We took nothing except what we could carry. It took us two days to get here. At night we slept in the open, it was cold. Old people, babies and pregnant women, it was hard for them.''

Ure Seng explains how the forced move has taken its toll on her and especially her husband.

''It's now our harvest time, our rice will be eaten by wild animals. Soldiers will steal our oranges. We've lost our five cows, six pigs, chickens and vegetable garden. Since coming here my husband has been sick several times _ it hurts him that he has lost everything we've worked for.''

Ure Seng disputes the Burmese government's statements that its reforms are changing the country for the better.

''There may be changes at an upper level [of society], but for ordinary people there is no change, we are still suffering _ how can I believe their words?''

Ure Seng says she desperately misses her home and old way of life.

''Every day I think about home, my cats and dogs. When you've been smashed out of your home, it's much bigger than sad.''

Ure Seng and other villagers interviewed for this article said they made for the relative security of the Chinese border, as Burmese army soldiers would not risk upsetting China by attacking.

''We felt the closer we got to the border the safer we would be. We also knew the Kachin Independence Organisation in Laiza would help us.''

Maji Htu Nan, 29, was alone with her three children, all under six, when the Burmese army came to her village of Nan San Yang.

''My husband was in the fields. I had my three kids to carry. I left with nothing ... We just ran. I was worried about being tortured and raped.''

Maji Htu Nan says she trekked with her neighbour, Mwi Hpu Roi, for a day and a night in a group of about 20 villagers.

''I found out later that the Burmese army burned down my home. They stole everything they could carry from houses they didn't burn _ windows, doors pots and pans.''

Villagers tell stories of abduction, torture, beatings and shootings. Local aid workers have documented several cases _ a woman held captive in an army camp of 50 soldiers, a 72-year-old man shot in the thigh and arm and a husband and wife taken and used as human shields to protect army patrols.

Maji Tu, 53, his wife Marip Lu Ja, 41, and a worker were working their rice field on Oct 6 when soldiers from infantry battalion 40 took them captive. Maji says not all the soldiers were in uniform and at first he was unsure who they were.

''They had guns, there were seven of them, they surrounded us. Some had bits of uniform on, trousers, hats. The soldiers accused us of being KIA soldiers. For about two hours they beat us with their guns. They took us to their camp _ there were about 200 soldiers there.''

Light infantry battalions 381 and 4338 and infantry battalion 40 operate in the area around Maji Tu and Marip Lu Ja's village of Gu Yang.

Marip says the soldiers tied ropes around their wrists. Taking hold of her husband's hands she pulls back his sleeves to reveal still visible scars caused by rope burn.

''We didn't have to carry anything, they [soldiers] just ordered us to walk between them. The soldiers gave us a bottle of water to drink from, but the bottle tasted of diesel. We drank when we crossed small rivers. We had nothing to eat for days.''

Maji Tu says the soldiers marched the three tied prisoners for five days to a helicopter landing area before releasing them.

''We saw three helicopters. We had our first meal on Oct 11, five days after we'd been arrested. We were tired, dizzy and I still have pain in my shoulder from the beating.''

Burmese army light infantry battalion 438 and infantry battalion 121 operate in the area around the village of Nan San Yang. Villagers say battalion 121 has a well deserved reputation for being aggressive and cruel towards civilians.

Maji Htu Nan says as well as having her home burnt she expects her livestock will be stolen and killed if and when she gets to return to her village.

''We had just planted crops. We've lost four acres of oranges, rice paddy, our two buffalos and three cows. We've lost everything we worked hard for. I'm worried they will landmine our fields and village and then we won't even have that to return to.''


The monsoon season has eased into winter and camp roads once thick with mud have turned to dust. Camp officials say the winter cold will bring different health problems, especially for the young and old.

Maran Zau Seng is the medical officer at Hpum Lum Yang Camp 10km upstream from the Je Yang Hka camp. Maran Sau says his camp is smaller, with a population of 1,077 people.

Pointing to a matrix neatly drawn on a whiteboard that details and records the camp's ailments, he explains the work he and his staff of five have carried out since June.

''We have treated 668 cases of extreme diarrhoea, 113 people with dysentery, 89 serious respiratory cases, 12 people with malaria, 41 skin infections, 34 eye infections, 25 trauma cases and 1,281 people with influenza. Serious cases we can't treat here we send to the hospital in Laiza.''

The town of Laiza is around 20km from the two camps. The mountain road takes about an hour of hard travelling by a four-wheel drive, navigating car-sized boulders, deep potholes and steep drops into river valleys.

Maran Zau Seng and his coworkers avoid the travel back and forth to their homes in Laiza by living and sleeping in the camp's bamboo huts.

''We are volunteers, we want to help and these people need help. Nothing much has changed for people in Burma. Look around you _ the government spends nothing on health. What you see is the real Burma for ethnic people.''

Over at the much bigger Je Yang Hka camp, Gam Mun, the chief medical officer responsible for both camps, estimates the clinic has 71 in-patients.

''Most of the people came here in the wet season when it was hot, now it's getting cold, especially beside the river. People are stressed. They've been through a lot, they have lost their homes and left all their possessions behind. It's now the harvest season, but they can't bring it in.''


Laiza has the feel of a town under siege. Four basic camps have been set up in community halls, disused markets and cultural parks to house the increasing number of displaced people. Another two camps have been built in the surrounding hills and 15 more in remote areas.

La Rip, coordinator for the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for Internally Displaced People and Refugees, says there are now 30,032 people in makeshift camps and the numbers are growing daily.

''We desperately need international assistance. Our current situation is not sustainable. It's beyond our capacity. Reaching all the displaced is difficult. The Shwegu area in the Bhamo district is under the control of the Burmese army _ that makes it impossible to get access to the 1,000 people hiding in the jungle.''

La Rip says he has heard rumours that United Nations and European Union agencies have received permission from the government to visit the conflict areas.

''We have yet to see anybody from any international organisation. If we don't get help, the people we can't reach will have no choice but to hunt and forage in the jungles. It's a desperate situation, it's now coming into winter, in the mountains it will be cold and people will need medical help, food, blankets, mosquito nets and mats. They also need buckets, water containers, pots and pans, machetes and knives.''

The story in the town and rural camps is similar _ old people sit on mats, their eyes dulled from being dragged from their homes, trekking for one to two days and finding little that is familiar to them in their new surroundings. Mothers scramble about trying to feed families, worry etched on tired faces. In the crowded halls finding space to change clothes is a challenge. Washing is laid on bare ground to catch the short-lived winter sun. Dirty youngsters chase each other through the crowded communal living spaces _ adults too tired to scold them. Older children carry water in an assortment of plastic buckets and various sized bottles. The town's schools are operating a roster where local children go to class in the morning and the displaced children take the afternoon sessions.

La Rip says there is no privacy in the town camps and little in the rural camps.

''It's hard for people to do simple things, like change their clothes without someone watching them. At night people find it hard to sleep, if one kid cries it sets off all the others. There are no walls, even in the day people can't find time or space to sleep. At Wun Li Hall camp in Laiza we have 1,231 people and only three toilets.''

Around Laiza, fully kitted soldiers armed with grenades and automatic weapons ride by on motorcycles and in the back of pickup trucks. Keen-eyed soldiers at ground-level checkpoints guard key buildings day and night while metal-helmeted soldiers can be seen behind sandbagged vantage points on top of high-rise buildings. On side streets, scores of one-room sewing shops are non-stop making uniforms for the Kachin Army.

Local traders say Laiza's streets are now deathly quiet compared to before the war started _ shifting front lines are less than 20km from the town centre. Trucks taking consumer goods from Laiza to other towns are unable to drive through the conflict zones. Two out of three of the town's jade shops have closed. Local businesses claim their income is zero and some say they are losing as much as five million kyat (156,000 baht) a day _ a fortune when compared to local wages, pegged at around US$2 to $3 (63 to 94 baht) a day. La Rip says his camp managers are doing the best they can, but with some people in the camps for six months pressure is building.

''We lack experience. It's more than just feeding and sheltering people. Now there are many social problems _ neighbour disputes, unemployment _ people looking for work are easy prey for traffickers. Young men are exploited for their labour, young women are forced into marriages or used as concubines. These people are vulnerable, open to exploitation.''


Up several flights of stairs in the heavily fortified Laiza Hotel, Gen Gun Maw, the vice-chief of staff of the Kachin Independence Army and head of the Kachin Independence Organisation's Foreign Affairs Department, responds to recent accusations reported in The Wall Street Journal by Burmese Information Minister Kyaw San that the Kachin are terrorists.

Gen Gun Maw takes a moment before answering. His arm sweeps the large conference room that now resembles a war room, its walls covered by about 30m of maps.

''Have a look _ you'll see the names of destroyed villages next to the names of the Burmese army battalions that did the destruction. Since our foundation we [the KIA] have not used terrorist acts. The definition of a terrorist is someone who targets unarmed civilians. This government and its army operations could be classified as terrorists. I wouldn't say all the Burmese army act as terrorists, but you could say many of its battalions in Kachin State are out of control.''

Gen Gun Maw says the responsibility for how the Burmese army conducts its battle plan lies with the higher echelons of its military.

''In 2004, Sen Gen Than Shwe and Gen Maung Aye said they would need to prepare a list of those they needed to kill. By openly stating this, the country's top two generals created an atmosphere that gives legitimacy to their soldiers to kill. The [Burmese] army has been instructed, 'If you think it is the enemy you can kill' _ their intent is clear.''

Gen Gun Maw makes the point that in Burma almost everyone has been abused by military policies that have eroded the morale and trust of the country's people.

''Ethnic people have been treated like the enemy of the state for decades, but in Burma everyone has been denied their basic rights. People can't freely move without reporting their travels, everyone is being watched. People are afraid all the time. The country has been run down _ transport, roads, health, agriculture, living standards and basic wages are among the worst in the world.''

Gen Gun Maw says he is not surprised by the information minister's accusations that the KIA are terrorists.

''We had a 17-year ceasefire with them that they refused to ratify in writing. Today we are asking for a signed agreement and again they refuse to sign _ why?''

During the interview with Gen Gun Maw one of his soldiers enters the far side of the room with a bag the Kachin Independence Army claims has Burmese army shell fragments that contained chemicals.

Soldiers gather around as a soldier wearing a gas mask and plastic gloves carefully removes the bag's contents.

Front-line soldiers reported seeing the shells trailing smoke and that they felt dizzy, sleepy, and vomited and bled from ears and nose and had ''racing hearts''.

A soldier says the mortar shell was a 75mm ''double-shot'' and was fired near the village of Hpakawn and that light infantry battalion 83 operates in the area.

After being sidetracked by the fragments Gen Gun Maw takes up where he left off.

''For 17 years we had a ceasefire, there was never any political dialogue or solution offered _ it was always a ceasefire that was never signed in spite of our request to do so. Ceasefire agreements are not peace. The government has used various ceasefire agreements with ethnic groups to their own advantage, mainly to claim that a particular ethnic area is now peaceful,'' says Gen Gun Maw.

He says the government's recent attempts to offer ceasefire talks do not go far enough.

''The KIO [Kachin Independence Organisation] policy is that we want the government to solve the country's political problems by political means. We want a guarantee that there will be meaningful political dialogue. For 17 years we had a ceasefire, but no real political dialogue about what is needed to achieve peace in Burma.

''The government and the president have not answered our question _ what is the government's plan for a peace dialogue for the whole country? They have not answered any questions we have put to them for a political solution.''

Gen Gun Maw estimates that the KIO has met with the government three times since the armed conflict started in June in an effort to stop the war. None of the meetings were successful.

''We asked the government to announce that there would be political dialogue and that they would stop the fighting in all ethnic states in 15 days _ the government refused. We requested China or another international government witness a signed ceasefire agreement, but the government refused our request.''

The two sides may be meeting regularly to discuss a halt to the conflict but Gen Gun Maw still makes security a high priority, as demonstrated by the measures in place around the Lazia Hotel that now resembles an army headquarters more than a place of rest.


Capt Brang Di comes from a military family; his father was a staff officer. Brang Di joined the Kachin Independence Army in 2001 after he graduated from university with a degree in economics.

Capt Brang Di, 27, is part of a front-line mobile battalion. He is responsible for setting up and organising village defence groups.

''We operate only at the front, we go where we are needed. We ambush, protect villagers, give them cover while they get out of the way of the Burmese army.''

Capt Brang Di confirms that the Burmese army had shelled Nam San Yang village and burned down homes.

''Infantry battalion 121 burned houses and shot villagers, one a 72-year-old man, his name is Jang Kham Naw. He survived but was wounded in the thigh and arm. The old man was hiding behind a bamboo fence when the soldiers shot him. Battalion 121 also burned the villager's motorcycles and looted their homes.''

Capt Brang Di explains why he joined the KIA and says it is not the $8 to $10 a month salary he is sometimes paid.

''I do it because our people need us. I want to help build our state, that's important. The Burmese army soldier is not fighting for a cause _ they don't fight for their people, they're just following orders.

''We're fighting for our people and our land. I love this land. I go to the front line to serve our people.''

Capt Brang Di says during the 17-year ceasefire with the Burmese army relations were cordial and both sides often exchanged or swapped food with each other.

''The Burmese army units stationed here during the ceasefire have been moved and replaced with battalions with no contacts among our people. The new soldiers have no sympathy for the villagers _ they are here for war not peace.''

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